What The Hell Is Gluten And Is It Really That Bad?

These days, it seems like everyone and their mother has a gluten intolerance.

These days, it seems like everyone and their mother has a gluten intolerance. Restaurants, big-box brands at the grocery store, and even fast food chains have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon. But, what is gluten, and what’s all the fuss really about?

Gluten is a composite protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is what gives bread that wonderfully chewy texture, gives pasta the ability to mold into dozens of shapes, and gives pizza its elasticity. If you’ve ever watched a pizza as it’s twirled into form, you’ve seen gluten hard at work.

Despite being a cornerstone of the Western diet (we’ve been eating the stuff for more than 10,000 years), today 30% of Americans are choosing to steer clear of gluten.

It’s time to break down why we’re skipping on the stretchy stuff and see if it’s worth it.

Celiac Disease Vs. Gluten Sensitivity


The real victims of the lettuce bun. Photo: @cathrasher / Instagram

Here’s the kicker: only 1% of the population has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine when gluten gets ingested. The wildly unpleasant symptoms include a myriad of digestive problems, skin rashes, anemia, muscle cramps, bone and joint pain, and mouth ulcers, to name a few.

The Greek physician, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, first recorded people suffering from a gluten intolerance in the 2nd century AD. While other doctors had recorded similar findings, it was Dutch physician Willem Karel Dicke who noted that celiac disease declined during World War II during bread shortages and increased post-war once bread got reintroduced. In 1952, Dicke officially determined gluten as the trigger for celiac disease.

It’s All In Your Head


It might not be real, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a trend! Photo: @glutenfreecuppatea / Instagram

For the other 29% of Americans avoiding gluten for health reasons, including “sensitivity,” gluten may not be the culprit in most sensitivities. Studies done by Peter Gibson, the director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, found that non-celiac patients had no real symptoms when ingesting gluten and that their perceived gastrointestinal issues were psychological.

Bye, Bye Bread … And So Much More


Not my mac and cheese with breadcrumbs on top. Photo: @food_anddrink / Instagram

Eliminating gluten from your diet means you can say buh-bye to bread, pasta, pizza, beer, and most baked goods. For those with celiac disease, eating out – and even choosing the right medicine – can be a hurdle.

This laundry list of items is only a small portion of unsuspecting products that also contain gluten: soy sauce, couscous, hot dogs, jelly beans, licorice, pickles, allspice, deli meats, curry powder, hot chocolate mixes, and oatmeal. How many people claiming a gluten sensitivity are realistically swapping soy sauce for gluten-free tamari soy sauce when they’re eating sushi? Exactly.

Gluten Free Is (Not) The Way To Be


Yeah, see, these are gluten free and I’m pretty sure they’re not good for you. Photo: @veganfoodlovers / Instagram

Many have championed the gluten-free diet as healthier, but that claim also has been numerously debunked. Researchers have found that gluten-free diets can lead to nutritional imbalances.

Often when people feel better, it’s because they’re eliminating overly processed carbohydrates from their diets, and swapping them for fruits and veggies. Gluten or no gluten, a diet riddled with processed food, artificial ingredients and preservatives is guaranteed to make you feel ill.

How Do You Feel About A 242% Mark Up?


Behold the power of supply and demand. Photo: Andrea Nguyen / Flickr

For those with celiac disease, the rise of awareness and slew of gluten-free products entering the consumer space can only be thought of as a blessing. However, it’s worth mentioning that the gluten-free market has ballooned to a whopping 7 billion dollars per year, and it’s expected to grow another 4 billion dollars by 2017.

While that could be attributed to the expansion of gluten-free products, it’s also because, across the board, gluten-free products are far more expensive – a whopping 242% more than their standard counterparts. You can bet your bottom dollar that the industrial food system is going to continue monetizing on misinformation surrounding gluten-free food for as long as we’re willing to buy into it.

For more stories like this, check out 6 Ways I Taught My Lactose Intolerant Body To Love Dairy, as well as 5 Ways To Avoid Eating Your Feelings During The Holidays.