Et tu, Gluten?

Et tu, Gluten?

Avoiding the latest bête noire of the bakery has some downsides you may not have considered.

By Leslie Bilderback 04/05/2013

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This just in — wheat is killing us.  

What was just another annoying trend in nutritionism is fast joining cigarettes, soda pop and drive-time texting in the ranks of glare-worthy offenses.

Recent reports from several media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN and The Huffington Post, indicate an increase in reported cases of celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine), as well as the newly legitimized non-celiac gluten intolerance (NCGI). As a result,
I have developed non-celiac hypochondriac intolerance.

I know people with serious celiac disease, and I have pooh-poohed anyone shunning wheat without a celiac calling card. Studies show that only 1 percent of Americans have celiac, according to the National Institutes of Health. But doctors now report up to 10 percent of us may have the related — and poorly understood — non-celiac gluten intolerance (also annoyingly referred to as “gluten sensitivity” — as if we are now concerned about the gluten’s feelings). Gluten intolerance is identified if patients’ health improves when gluten is removed, and worsens when it is added. The state of “health” in question is ill-defined and can manifest in several unpleasant conditions, including headaches, fatigue, acne and gastrointestinal issues. What they are describing is how I felt every Sunday morning in college. Was it gluten intolerance or too much beer pong?

In celiac disease, the culprit is gliadin, a protein in the endosperm of wheat, rye and barley. Bakers have long known about gliadin because it is one of the proteins that produce elasticity in our bread dough. Without it, bread dough wouldn’t rise, and your country loaf would be an artisanal hockey puck. (See gluten-free bread.) Gliadin is comprised of a chain of several indigestible amino acids. No one can digest them, and a chosen few experience discomfort and illness. The intestines are gradually damaged, which prevents the absorption of vitamins and minerals, which in turn results in deficiencies. The onset of celiac disease can come at any age, and it is onsetting more and more, with
diagnosed cases quadrupling over the past 50 years. Scientists speculate that the increase is a result of the use of gluten in a huge number of processed foods (check your salad dressing bottle). As a baker, I’d like to think that it has nothing to do with the foodie-fueled trend of artisan breads, made with special high-gluten flours. After all, breads have been made this way since Hammurabi first thought about a code. That our species is just now feeling its effects suggests the fault might rightly belong elsewhere — perhaps with the mentality that brought us Hamburger Helper, TV dinners and SpaghettiOs.

Gluten intolerance is actually a range of conditions, with celiac disease being the extreme case at the top of the spectrum, and your hippie food-trend–mongering neighbor at the other end. In between are a range of problems that appear to be gluten-related. Scientists now think that half the cases of irritable bowel syndrome in America are likely gluten-based. (I always thought it was just excessive bean consumption.) Reports indicate that when some patients begin a gluten-free diet, they feel better almost immediately. As a result, doctors are now considering gluten avoidance as a remedy for several health problems, even without a diagnosis of celiac disease.

Celiac disease is easily determined with a blood test and biopsy. Gluten sensitivity, though, is harder to pin down. There is no real test, and no adequate definition. Is it a case of celiac envy? How much of it is gluten, and how much of it is just our body complaining about something else we put in it? (Our American bodies are hardly temples.) Or could there be something to the idea that gluten, which is in practically everything, is causing damage?

As a result of recent findings, gluten-free products are flooding the market, as have, over the years, carb-free, oat-bran, sugar-free, fat-free and high-fiber products. They are trying, successfully, to draw us into the land of the gluten-free. But those of you toying with the idea of a gluten-free diet should do your homework: First, be aware that gluten, like high-fructose corn syrup and Ryan Seacrest, is everywhere. Check your condiments  (for gluten, that is…not Ryan). And while you’re reading labels, check the gluten-free products. Most have extra fat and sweeteners to compensate for the lack of flavor (wheat tastes good), and additional non-gluten starches to simulate the structure normally provided by gluten. These other starches are much lower in fiber and nutrients overall, which is problematic because fiber helps to stabilize blood sugar levels. Such loss of fiber often results in an increased pant size.

You might think that because I am a baker, this trend would be a setback. But people are clamoring for cake, cookies, muffins and even pizza made without gluten — which we are providing. While the technology is improving (“technology” is code for my skill as a baker of gluten-free stuff), it all seems to be missing something. I understand that we have cravings. But I liken this to the Tofurkey vegans cook at Thanksgiving. Why do you insist on replacing the thing you can’t have with a pale imitation? Gluten-free products are not that good. And gluten-free bread is the emperor’s new clothes of the bakery. Stop pretending that you are using bread to sandwich your turkey breast. If it looks like cardboard and tastes like cardboard, it’s cardboard (or gluten-free bread). 

To throw a dinner party these days, you are expected to provide not only options for the vegetarians (and vegans), guests with nut allergies, the religiously adherent and now the gluten-sensitive. (Have you noticed lately that people spend way too much time telling others what they eat? I am pretty sure no one cares what I eat.) I was taught that requesting food from my host is rude. I will enjoy whatever he creates for me and eat as much or as little of it as I want to. In my day we ate whatever was served, then excused ourselves to fart in the carport, like good Americans.  
Why not learn to eat something else? There are fabulous grains that are naturally gluten-free. Learn to cook with quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, millet (a.k.a. bird seed), teff (used in Ethiopian injera bread), cornmeal and oats. Yes, it means you have to work a little harder to get your dinner. But it’s not as if you have to thresh the grain yourself.

Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She also teaches her techniques online at


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