Beyond Gluten-Free Mania

Is gluten-free a fad? Of course it is.

You can be pretty sure that anything promising near miracle health results in a tidy two-word package is a bit of a scam. Yet we love our tidy two-word health solutions, and we see these type of silver-bullet diets again and again because—at least for a while—they can work. This is because people are forced to stop and think about what they are eating, prepare more foods at home and eat less industrial food. That is, until the food industry pounces on our desire for convenience and offers fat-free cookies, low-sodium bacon and gluten-free bagels—all prepackaged and ready to eat.

The important unintended result of the gluten-free craze

As the concept of gluten-free distorts and devolves into yet another category for the food industry to exploit, an important and elusive goal has been achieved as a side-effect. It has motivated a lot of people (nearly 1 in 3 North Americans by recent estimates) to do something that doctors have been encouraging (and the public has been ignoring) for generations: eat less white flour. This is a breakthrough. For many decades, the dangerous failure of white flour as food has been well understood. And yet, almost unbelievably, the warnings have fallen on masses of deaf ears. Until now.

But while gluten-free mania has brought attention to this issue, the food industry response has confused it. Getting off white flour and junk carbs is a great idea. Replacing white flour with different junk carbs made with highly refined rice, bean or quinoa flour, is a bad idea. Yet it has become a multi-billion dollar industry. This explosion of industrially produced, gluten-free snack food takes us down the wrong path. Junk food is junk food, gluten or not. 0% fat or not. Under 100 calories or not.

The absurdity of gluten as universal bad guy

The other thing tarnishing this new silver bullet is that the more it is understood, the more the hypothesis breaks down. Clearly, there is more to wheat than gluten. And there are many problems with white flour, stemming from current farming and production methods . And of course, white flour is just part of the industrial food problem. There is so much wrong with industrial food that no wonder our bodies complain. To blame an epidemic of low-level chronic illness a single protein (gluten) that has been a key part of the human diet for over 10,000 years is simply absurd. If we want to find the real culprits, we need to look at what has CHANGED in the last few generations.

Consider this: You eat some factory-made muffin, and you feel unwell. It's obviously the gluten, right? But wait. Could it be something else (yet undiscovered) about our radically changed modern dwarf wheat? Or could it be pesticide residues on the wheat? (A senior MIT researcher thinks so.) Maybe it's something about how highly refined the flour is? Or the additives in the flour. Perhaps it is the hydrogenated oil? Or the huge dose of high fructose corn syrup? Perhaps some preservative? Or just the toxic lump of highly refined starches, sugars and oils -- completely unnatural -- all hitting your gut together? Whatever it is, for the majority of people, it isn’t likely the gluten. There are just too many more obvious suspects, all of which, unlike gluten, are recent additions to the human diet.

At GRAINSTORM, we're interested in going the other way. To where baked goods can and should be wholesome, real food. To achieve this, we need to start with wheat flour that is wholesome, real food. But in its current industrial form, it is anything but. Throwing out wheat altogether is too hard for us -- wheat is wired into western culture DNA. It is our comfort, our nourishment, our joy. Throwing out wheat altogether is also unnecessary. What is necessary is to reform our wheat and how we process and use it. To revive our wheat as a wholesome staple food. This is the message we would like to get across; this is the option we would like people to understand. How to have our cake and eat it too, literally.

Gluten-free is finally jumping the shark, and hopefully making room for more important and intelligent conversations about wheat. 

The gluten-free mania has created a convenient and easy-to-label villain. But the real villain is industrial food, the convenience of which we are totally addicted to. Thankfully, the irrational exuberance over this faded silver bullet is giving way to more intelligent conversations. Just take a look at this list of articles exposing the flaws in the gluten-free narrative. It doesn’t take long to realize that there is something more complicated going on.

These articles, and many others, focus on a few important insights into the gluten-free fad.

  • most gluten-free products are junk food; as bad or worse than the original wheat-based junk food they are replacing;
  • a whole food gluten-free diet works for weight loss because it eliminates junk carbs -- the food group most responsible for overweight and obesity;
  • unless you have celiac disease, there is no benefit to a gluten-free diet (but there is huge benefit to a junk-food free diet);
  • many symptoms attributed to gluten-sensitivity are quite likely caused by other factors such as FODMAPS, additives, pesticides or hyper insulin response.

If you are interested in gluten-free issues, read a few or these articles. Educate yourself beyond gluten-free mania and join the movement toward REAL health—and away from industrial junk food.

Gluten-free articles 2014

The New Yorker Magazine
Against the Grain
By Michael Specter

The National Post
Farewell to gluten free: Why we are so easily fooled by pseudoscience and marketing gimmicks when it comes to food
By Joseph Brean

The Wall Street Journal
The Gluten-Free Craze: Is It Healthy?
By Julie Jargon

The Huffington Post
Gluten-Free Mania -- If You're Following the Fad, You're a Marketer's Dream and Part of the Confusion
By Jill S. Brown

New York Daily News
Gluten-free diet may do more harm than good for those without wheat sensitivity: study

Arizona Daily Sun
Mountain Medicine: Is gluten-free good for all?
By Stacey Hitesman

The Guardian
Is gluten bad for your health?
By Dr Luisa Dillner

Should You Be Going Gluten-Free?
By Leta Shy

ABC News
5 Gluten Myths You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask About
By Sydney Lupkin

Macleans Magazine
The dangers of going gluten-free
By Cathy Gulli

Time Magazine
Should You Eat Gluten-Free Bread?
By Mandy Oaklander

Time Magazine
Eat More Gluten: This Diet Fad Must Die
By Jeffery Kluger

The Washington Post
Backlash has begun against gluten-free dieters
By Ellen McCarthy

The New York Times
The Gluten-Free Diet Is a Fad
By Clifford A Wright