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My gluten-free cupcake is healthy, right?

By in Opinions

CupcakeGluten-sensitivity seems to be spreading like a mass epidemic in North America these days. But there is more to the diet than consumers and health nuts realize.

Refusing doughnuts on the basis of “I don’t eat gluten” doesn’t even cause people to question whether a person is actually allergic to it or if they’re just consciously cutting it out of their diet. Either way, if you ask for a gluten-free menu at a restaurant you’ll get one. In fact, it’s difficult to find a place to eat that doesn’t make accommodations for the gluten-sensitive consumer.

This trend took flight back in 2011 with the release of Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. Davis nicknames modern wheat as “frankenwheat,” bluntly stating that it is poisonous and contains addictive properties that can be comparable to that of heroin.

He goes on to state in his book that consuming modern wheat can cause obesity, hypertension, ADHD, dementia, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, autism and more. No wonder everyone’s terrified of gluten — I’d rather not have drugs, monsters and life-threatening illness for breakfast.

In the midst of this craze, asking someone who’s gone gluten-free what is actually wrong with wheat will usually generate an unimpressive answer of “it’s genetically-modified,” or the even less convincing, “it’s bad.” Unless you’ve actually read Davis’ book or done your own research, it’s hard to know what the real problem is here.

To start, gluten is a protein found most commonly in wheat, barley and rye. It’s the stuff that gives dough its elastic texture and it’s used as an additive in many consumer products. So if you actually want to avoid gluten, you’d better start looking for it.

It goes beyond just saying no to morning bagels and dinner rolls. Salad dressing, soy sauce, processed meats, blue cheese, hot dogs, couscous, licorice, canned soups and beer are just a few examples of the surprising places where it’s hiding.

For people who have an actual gluten-sensitivity or Celiac disease, it’s easy to understand how tedious this can get. In severe cases, one morsel of gluten can cause a serious autoimmune response in the small intestine, producing inflammation. From there, chain reactions of very uncomfortable symptoms occur such as bloating, heartburn, constipation or stomach cramping.

Now the majority of today’s gluten-sensitivity problems come from the development of modern wheat, also known as semi-dwarf wheat. In the latter part of the 20th century a man named Dr. Norman Borlaug developed hybridized wheat. This hybridizing technique meant that the offspring of one strain of wheat was mated with parents of a different strain, leading to Borlaug’s exceptionally high-yielding semi-dwarf wheat.

The semi-dwarf wheat is stockier and shorter — a teeny 18 inches compared to original wheat’s height of four-and-a half feet. This allows the wheat to mature quicker, leading to a shorter growing season and enables more wheat to be produced in less time.

Today, semi-dwarf wheat comprises 99 per cent of all wheat grown world-wide. This means that the wheat we eat today is vastly genetically different from the wheat that our great-grandmothers ate.

The semi-dwarf wheat undergoes significant structural changes through the process of hybridization, making it almost unrecognizable from the original wheat. Now that’s all great and factual, but the real problem here is that this semi-dwarf wheat was never actually tested for human consumption; it simply replaced original wheat without testing and was assumed safe.

Therefore the alterations done on wheat that the majority of us consume make it harder for the human body to break it down. Increasingly there has been more research released showing links between consuming semi-dwarf wheat and health problems. This concern points to the increase in people who are beginning to diagnose themselves as gluten-sensitive, leading to reports of improved health once it’s eliminated.

The Canadian gluten-free market saw an annual growth rate of 26.6 per cent between 2008 and 2012, putting the 2012 revenue at 450 million dollars. The best sellers in the industry are gluten-free snacks, breads, cereals and prepared foods.

According to the National Purchase Diary Group, a Canadian global information company, the interest in gluten-free menu items has increased by 137 per cent in Canadian restaurants over the past three years.

Obviously not everyone is simultaneously realizing his or her long-ignored gluten intolerance. And if you’ve been eating wheat your whole life the concept probably seems like complete bullshit. For some it may be a genuine health concern, but for others I am strongly suspicious that it is being received as a fad diet.

It’s safe to say that this trend is both annoying and right up there with instagramming pictures of the salad you had for lunch and hashtagging it #vegan or #foodporn. Or taking before and after side shots of your stomach giving yourself the self-loathing hashtag of #fitgirl or #bigboy.

Ironically, as I write this I am enjoying a piece of leftover gluten-free pizza. I confess that after doing my own research, I ditched the gluten over a year ago. Maybe I was actually gluten-sensitive all along, maybe not. Regardless, I feel so much better now.

I have way more energy than I used to and my asthma has also disappeared (good-bye rescue inhaler!) However, in addition to saying no to gluten, I also adopted different health habits at the same time: more veggies, more exercise — the type of habits your mother would approve of. So I don’t think dumping gluten can be the only thing to credit my improved health.

The biggest problem I see is when people stock up on President’s Choice gluten-free mini chocolate brownies, and expecting dramatic health benefits or weight loss. Let me tell you something, honey; those gluten-free goodies are not only packed with the same preservatives that regular ones are, but they are also loaded with potato starch and rice flour — neither of which are beneficial to your health. It’s just simply a company seeing an opportunity for profit and responding to consumers.

Eating gluten doesn’t necessarily make you unhealthy but going gluten-free doesn’t necessarily make you healthy either. Before you join the club and throw out your Wonder Bread, I recommend reading up on it a little and seeing if you really want to commit.

The gluten-free diet is definitely a lot more work than it sounds and isn’t something to be taken lightly as a quick path to health. Frankly, there’s no such thing. But to each their  own. And healthy or not, I’ll stick to my gluten-free cupcakes — nobody said anything about giving those up, did they?

Naomi Zurevinski

Graphic: Cody Schumacher / Graphics Editor

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