Gluten, that substance in wheat flour that gives a wonderful chewiness to freshly baked bread, bagels and croissants, and is so facile in thickening sauces and soups, creating al dente pasta and containing bursting dim sum with the thinnest of membranes is a life force. But for a growing group of “others”, gluten is the new immunological bad boy. At worst, it can cause anaphylaxis, abdominal agony and death. Celiacs cannot tolerate even a little gluten without severe pain and distress that can last for days and even weeks. Those with gluten sensitivity span the spectrum of symptoms from migraine headaches, skin eruptions, joint swelling and muscle pain, auto-immune disorders, a host of serious gastrointestinal ailments, anxiety, iron deficiency anemia and more.
Why this sudden upsurge in gluten sensitivity? Is it a fad?
There are many factors that may have put gluten on the debit side of the food column. GMO is not a carmaker. Genetically Modified Organisms refers to the genetic manipulation of wheat (in this case) to maximize certain characteristics such as immunity to insect enemies or diseases, increase productivity and yield per acre or even amplify gluten content. But these overnight changes to genetic material that would normally take hundreds, even thousands of years are too sudden for food that we eat. As some people ingest GMOs, their bodies may mistake this new genetic material as an invader and reject it. That rejection will look like many of the symptoms to gluten allergy or sensitivity. Another reason might be dysbiosis—damaged gut flora.
Excessive prescribing of antibiotics has changed the G.I. biome (natural microorganisms and bacteria) in many individuals rendering them incapable of normal digestion and processing food. Undigested gluten fragments might be misidentified as a microbial invader and trick the body to attack.
Poor digestion might result in low nutrient absorption. This could interfere with the body’s ability to suppress immune cells, which may attack harmless proteins. There is a cascading effect that could result in metabolic chaos in the worst cases.
So are the new hypochondria asking for gluten-free food? Like anything new that suddenly appears as a social scourge, there will adherents who simply want to surf that fad despite not having any medical symptoms to justify jettisoning gluten from their diet. But, there is increasingly clear, analytical data that supports having to change to a gluten-free diet for many. If only restaurants, bakeries, dieticians, nutritionists, healthcare workers, physicians and society as a whole would get with the program and recognize the wheat landscape in not our mother’s grain and that gluten intolerance is a real, but man-made curse.