Technology as Servant
Whether for fun, for fad, or for health recovery, “gluten-free” is the word of the day.1 Going gluten-free is incredibly popular—over one-fourth of Americans report eating gluten-free foods at least some of the time.2 Among people who identify themselves as health-conscious or who espouse diets such as GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), paleo, or other similar dietary approaches, the numbers may be even higher.2,3 Market researchers expect the gluten-free industry to reach around five billion dollars by the beginning of the next decade, and North America ranks as the fastest growing segment of the world’s gluten-free market.4
Unfortunately, there are a number of dark sides to eating a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free proponents and adherents may not have sufficient awareness or warning of these dangers, especially when it comes to consuming ready-made gluten-free products.
The first—and biggest—concern with many gluten-free products is that they contain alarming amounts of heavy metals. A recent study found higher (and clearly measurable) levels of heavy metals in individuals who reported eating a gluten-free diet compared to people consuming a standard diet.5,6 According to a description of the study in New York Magazine’s food and restaurant blog, “Subjects with the highest concentrations [of heavy metals] had double the arsenic, a metal used in pesticides and herbicides that was used to make [the herbicide] Agent Blue during the Vietnam War, and 70 percent more mercury than the average person.”7
What could cause such elevated levels of heavy metals? One explanation is that most packaged gluten-free foods are heavily dependent on a few key ingredients and grains, especially rice. Consumer Reports and other groups have studied rice and shown that it is heavily contaminated with arsenic and mercury.8,9 Moreover, organic rice offers no advantage over non-organic rice with regard to heavy metals. This is because rice—organic or not—is partial to arsenic and mercury in the same way that tea plants show a preference for taking up fluoride from soil. For many decades, U.S. agriculture was dependent on pesticides, herbicides and animal feed additives that contained arsenic, leaving it in high levels in the nation’s waters and soils. In addition, in some areas of the U.S., greater amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals are available to the soil from underlying rock and other geological formations.
The findings about arsenic and mercury are especially troubling for pregnant and nursing mothers who are eating gluten-free foods and food mixes. They are also disturbing for young children, who are more vulnerable to heavy metals because of body weight and their developmental stage.
The term “gluten-free” is a marketing powerhouse. Many consumers assume that gluten-free products are clean, pure and wholesome, or think that gluten-free is a synonym for organic. The president of a company specializing in gluten-free product ingredients states that whereas gluten-free was “once considered a micro trend,” it has now “become firmly entrenched in consumers’ minds as ‘good for you.’ Consequently, gluten-free is not a trend anymore, but a lifestyle.”10 This same executive continues, “Health-conscious consumers who don’t have any intolerance or allergy issues are increasingly likely to choose gluten-free products, seeing them as healthier alternatives to gluten equivalents.”10
As if heavy metals weren’t enough of a concern, it turns out that gluten-free foods can cause other types of harm as well. Despite the positive connotations of the gluten-free label, a gluten-free product offers absolutely no guarantee of being organic, natural or unprocessed. On the contrary, gluten-free foods, just like any and all conventionally raised foods, show high levels of contamination with industrial agricultural chemicals, and especially glyphosate (the key ingredient in Roundup). In fact, in a shocking surprise, it appears that non-organic gluten-free foods actually show higher levels of residual contamination with glyphosate than their non-organic wheat-based counterparts!11
A citizen blogger in Canada, Tony Mitra, has obtained and examined thousands of records of foods tested for glyphosate by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).11,12 Mitra comments, “One kind of presumably healthy food category that has really surprised me with astonishingly high glyphosate content—is gluten free food,” adding that “anything that has ‘gluten-free’ mentioned has become suspect in my mind.”10 Mitra found that the CFIA’s average glyphosate readings for gluten-free items produced in the U.S. and Canada were “between two and three times the national average for USA and Canada, which are already high to start with.”11
To say that these findings are startling and troubling is an understatement. Given what we are learning about glyphosate’s many damaging effects on the human biome and body,13 consuming only organic gluten-free foods is of immense importance.
PHYTATES AND ANTINUTRIENTS
Even if you stick with non-rice-based, organic gluten-free foods, there is one final problem lurking in all that “healthy” gluten-free packaging and messaging: phytates (also called phytic acid) and other antinutrients. Phytates bind with minerals and block proper absorption of minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium. Almonds and oats, which are common ingredients in gluten-free foods, are both high in phytic acid. Soy is another exceptionally high source of phytic acid. Although rice has lower phytic acid than many other grains, phytic acid is still a concern. Processes that can reduce phytic acid content include soaking, sprouting and fermenting,14 but manufacturers of store-bought gluten-free foods generally do not process or prepare their ingredients in these ways.
Unfortunately, even avoiding high-phytate grains does not solve the problem because some of the other grain and legume options that feature prominently in gluten-free products can be loaded with other antinutrients. For example, as Chris Masterjohn has pointed out, some varieties of millet are exceptionally goitrogenic.15 Many beans also contain antinutrients well known to readers of Wise Traditions.16 Although cooking and processing will reduce lectins, other antinutrients will be left mostly intact.
WEIGHING RISKS AND BENEFITS
There is no doubt that some people benefit from a gluten-free diet, and some healing dietary protocols such as GAPS temporarily require it. Some people feel better when they reduce their gluten intake. However, the number of people eating a gluten-free diet and the products being pushed as gluten-free go well beyond what is necessary. In addition, many people simply are substituting processed fake or improperly prepared gluten-free foods for processed fake or improperly prepared gluten-containing foods. The evidence is clear—such substitutions are even more problematic for our health and wellbeing than consuming gluten-containing processed foods. Even individuals who substitute more whole and less processed gluten-free grains and foods may not realize that these foods can pose substantial risks to their health and the health of their family.
Correct preparation of traditional gluten-containing grain products involves careful handling to unlock their nutritional value and minimize any problematic compounds that they contain. When properly prepared, there is clear historical evidence that gluten-containing grains are health-promoting for vast numbers of people. However, most gluten-free foods on the market are not at all like their traditionally prepared gluten-containing counterparts. By going gluten-free, people are increasing their exposure to heavy metals, herbicides such as Roundup (and its active ingredient glyphosate), and antinutrients. Far from improving long-term health, going gluten-free can endanger it. All the slick marketing in the world cannot make contaminated foods—whether gluten-containing or gluten-free—good for our bodies.
Because manufacturers use a whole array of ingredients to make gluten-free products, including a wide variety of non-wheat-based grains and starches, it is “buyer beware” in the gluten-free marketplace. Consumers can only hope that the labels are clear enough to allow them to know which ingredients may be occasionally acceptable and which ones they should avoid.
I wish the research did not show such troubling results for gluten-free foods and diets, but there is no avoiding the conclusion that going gluten-free has the potential to do great damage to one’s health if done improperly. If you have got to go gluten-free, go wisely! Here are some recommendations:
1. Substitute whole foods, vegetables and fresh or dried fruit for processed or packaged gluten-free foods as much as possible.
2. Explore the value of Belgian endive as a crunchy alternative to crackers—the leaves can hold wonderful goodies like paté, homemade cheese spread and organic peanut butter.
3. In place of rice, focus on other properly prepared gluten-free whole grains such as quinoa and the right kinds of millet.15 It is acceptable to consume rice in moderation, but remember that most of the heavy metal contamination in gluten-free foods is the direct result of those foods’ heavy reliance on rice-based ingredients. Limit rice to two to three servings of organic rice per week and make sure that you prepare it properly to remove as much arsenic as possible.17
4. Arrowroot starch18 and chickpea flour19 are nutritious and versatile options for gluten-free and grain-free baking.
5. Try some genuine wheat-based sourdough bread slathered with butter—you may find that it agrees with you quite well and you don’t have to go 100 percent gluten-free after all.
6. Eat packaged or processed gluten-free foods only occasionally. Instead, make your own gluten-free foods, such as banana-arrowroot pancakes. (Combine one mashed banana, one egg, one tablespoon arrowroot, and 1/8 teaspoon each salt and cinnamon. Multiply by four to make a larger batch.)
7. If you purchase gluten-free products and mixes, buy organic. Testing of non-organic gluten-free products has revealed high levels of glyphosate, which also is an indicator of possible contamination with other herbicides. Simple Mills or other WAPF-recommended brands are good options.
8. All of these warnings go double for pregnant moms and kids. Children’s small body size and their developmental stage make the problems far more dangerous and damaging to their minds, bodies and biomes.
1. Puglise N. More Americans are eating gluten-free despite not having celiac disease. The Guardian, Sept. 6, 2016.
2. Mintel. Half of Americans think gluten-free diets are a fad while 25% eat gluten-free foods. Dec. 4, 2015. http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/half-of-americans-think-gluten-free-diets-are-a-fad-while-25-eat-gluten-free-foods.
3. Watson E. Health/weight-conscious consumers are driving the gluten-free market, not celiacs, says Mintel. William Reed Business Media, Oct. 15, 2013.
4. Gerrard J. Gluten free market to reach $4.9 billion by 2021. Food Engineering, Oct. 23, 2015.
5. Bulka CM, Davis MA, Karagas MR, Ahsan H, Argos M. The unintended consequences of a gluten-free diet. Epidemiology. 2017;28(3):e24-e25.
6. De Chant T. Gluten-free diets may lead to elevated mercury and arsenic levels. NOVA Next, Feb. 14, 2017.
7. Rainey C. Your gluten-free diet probably exposes you to a bunch of arsenic and mercury. Grub Street, Feb. 15, 2017.
8. Consumer Reports. 6 truths about a gluten free diet: the biggest trend in the food world shows no signs of slowing down. Here are the six realities behind the labels. Nov. 2014.
9. Consumer Reports. Arsenic in your food: our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin. Nov. 2012.
10. Schafer R. Multiple consumer trends continue to drive the gluten-free category. Snack Food and Wholesale Bakery, Feb. 12, 2016.
11. Mitra T. Gluten free food maybe suspect. Jan. 8, 2017. http://www.tonu.org/2017/01/08/cfia-glyphosatetest/.
12. Mitra T. North American infant cereals are contaminated with glyphosate. Feb. 11, 2017. http://www.tonu.org/2017/02/11/infant-cereal/.
13. Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome p450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: pathways to modern diseases. Entropy. 2013;15(4):1416-63.
14. Fallon S, Enig MG. Be kind to your grains…and your grains will be kind to you. January 1, 2000. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/food-features/be-kind-to-your-grains-and-your-grains-will-be-kind-to-you/.
15. Masterjohn C. Why it matters what type of millet you eat. March 16, 2017. https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/2017/03/16/matters-type-millet-eat/.
16. Czapp K. Putting the polish on those humble beans. Wise Traditions. 2006;7(4):73-8.
17. Moody J. Arsenic in rice. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/arsenic-in-rice.
18. Moody J. Using nutritious arrowroot in your kitchen and home. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/arrowroot-benefits-uses-cautions/.
19. Moody J. Chickpea flour: how to prepare and enjoy this multicultural traditional food. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/gram-chickpea-flour/.
RICE, RICE, MAYBE?
A large proportion of gluten-free foods use rice as a primary ingredient. Unfortunately, rice is generally the most contaminated grain in terms of arsenic and some other heavy metals.17 Even worse, organic varieties offer no advantage when it comes to heavy metal contamination because the heavy metals come from past contamination of the soil and water by now-banned chemicals, rather than from any particular chemicals currently in use. Some types of rice (such as white rice and imported aromatic varieties such as jasmine and basmati) are lower in arsenic.
Fortunately, you can remove up to 80 percent of the arsenic in organic rice through proper soaking and rinsing:
• Rinse your rice and soak it for at least twelve hours before cooking.
• Cook rice with eight parts water to one part rice (i.e., eight cups of water for one cup of rice).
• Simmer gently until the rice is tender.
• Drain off the cooking water and rinse the rice again thoroughly.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2017.