Eat more gluten? Maybe not.

Maybe arguments against gluten are overblown, but there aren’t many good arguments in favor either.

A recent article in Time magazine argues that “gluten free” is a fad and should die. While the author makes a few good points, overall I think he misses the mark. I agree with the author that when it comes to products where the main ingredient is wheat (in particular bread, pasta, pizza base, cereals, cookies, cakes), gluten-free replacements usually aren’t that healthy. These replacement products are frequently made of rapidly digestible carbohydrates and tend to be nutrient poor. However, what the author fails to mention is that the products being replaced are also made of rapidly digestible carbohydrates and are nutrient poor. There’s really not that much of a difference between gluten-free bread made of tapioca flour and millet and regular gluten-containing bread made of wheat flour. Most people would be better off avoiding both.

Where the author is really off, though, is when he bemoans the marketing machine that sells stuff as gluten free that shouldn’t contain gluten in the first place, such as yoghurt or veggies. The sad truth is that we’re living in a world where everything that needs an ingredient label or is prepared in a restaurant kitchen may contain gluten. Unless you prepare your food yourself, from ingredients that can still be identified as living organisms, you don’t know. For example, salad shouldn’t contain gluten, but often does (croutons). Grated cheese gets dusted with flour. Yoghurt might contain flour as a thickening agent. Burgers and sausages may contain wheat as a filler. A steak with veggies should be gluten free but often isn’t (flour in the sauce for the steak or on the veggies). Go to a restaurant that carefully labels which items are gluten free and check out how many dishes that really should be gluten free are not labeled as such. It’s quite amazing. For celiacs, for whom avoiding gluten is crucial, anything that isn’t clearly labeled as “gluten free” is a risk, regardless of how logical it would seem that the item should be gluten free anyway.

Finally, the author repeats the argument that always comes up in the context of gluten/wheat-free diets, that only 1–2% of the population really have severe, clinical problems with gluten. The other 98% should relax and not be so worried. The problem is that of the people who do have celiac, many don’t know and experience slowly deteriorating health without realizing what’s going on. Why should we expose ourselves to a risk, even if it is only about 1–2%, if it is so much easier to just not eat wheat in the first place?1

I’m pretty sure I don’t have celiac, and I do eat wheat products on rare occasions. (I had a pizza on my birthday this year.) However, on the whole, I don’t see any good reason to eat wheat, and I just avoid it. While a little flour dusting on grated cheese is not going to kill me, I am disturbed by the fact that I can never be sure what I’m getting when I buy any sort of professionally prepared food, and as such I welcome that more attention is being paid to what kind of ingredients go into the food we eat. If a sausage is clearly labeled as “gluten free,” chances are it doesn’t contain bread crumbs, and that’s a good thing in my book.

  1. Also, keep in mind that gluten is not the only reason to avoid wheat. Other reasons are the presence of FODMAPs, lectins, and phytic acid. Wheat also has an excessively high carbohydrate density. I’m really not aware of any argument in favor of wheat.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology
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