Rethinking the Gluten-Free Craze
“After a while the young man sat up and looked at the heavens, at the twinkling white stars, and then away across the shadows of round hills in the dusk. … The dreaming hills with their precious rustling wheat meant more than even a spirit could tell. Where had the wheat come from that had seeded these fields? Whence the first and original seeds, and where were the sowers? Back in the ages! The stars, the night, the dark blue of heaven hid the secret in their impenetrableness. Beyond them surely was the answer, and perhaps peace.”
Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat (1919)
From the book: Harvest Heritage
by Richard D. Scheuerman & Alexander C. McGregor
After some years of enjoying delicious grain recipes, I actually got to the point where I was about to toss the grain baby out with the bath water! Why? Well, from many of the friendly Weston A. Price Foundation discussion groups and blogs that I and another WAPF buddy of mine follow, it seems of late that the urgent message to go gluten-free was the last great impetus since man landed on the moon!
I began to see a deluge of recipes featuring alternative flours for baking. Almond flour was the most frequently suggested replacement for wheat flours. This new standard is not only a regular part of many WAPF-friendly blogs, but can be found virtually all over the Internet and is sadly becoming the norm. Additionally, there are the many affirmations that at last, we have finally come to realize (drum-roll) that it was the gluten that caused all those health problems! Give up the glutenous poison and a near nirvana state of health would be ours! Who could argue with these claims?
In addition to blogs and the Internet pointing us in the direction of gluten-free baking and cooking, all we need to do is visit any commercial grocery or health food store. The grand proof that we have at last found the latest health panacea of the moment lies in the fact that shelf after shelf groans under the weight of gluten-free foods to appease even those of us who have never been bothered by eating gluten! Further, a sizable library of books, and some written by good doctors newly crowned the super-stars of the gluten-free craze, bolsters the faith of the recently converted. Unfortunately much of this information has served to hurt the wheat industry as a whole, and has also scared the common sense out of anyone who would dare to put a slice of wheat bread in his mouth!
Sensing that there was something wrong with this picture and noting a definite departure from what I’d been used to eating, I, too, came under the spell and found myself at one of those stores looking for a sack of (gluten-free) almond flour! Of course I wanted to be sure I purchased the best organic almond flour I could find! This brazen act was perpetrated in spite of the fact that almonds and other gluten-free flours have some distinct disadvantages when compared to organic grains. So why was I looking to feed my family a wholesale diet of cookies, cakes, breads and numerous other foods made from gluten-free flours while choosing to ignore the nutritious grain recipes in books like Nourishing Traditions?
Something inside me asked whether I could also perhaps be succumbing to the message? Just maybe I had not done my homework. It genuinely bothered me to see the proliferation of the gluten-free credo in a good many of the WAPF-friendly blogs and websites. I wondered how we could prevent the situation we recently experienced with the popular Paleo diets which were misunderstood to be a re-interpretation of the WAPF and ancestral diets. My instant conclusion was, here we go again!
Suddenly, I felt I absolutely must investigate this issue further, and a faint sadness settled on me to think that going gluten-free may now also be misinterpreted as being endorsed as part of the diet espoused by the Weston A. Price Foundation. For newcomers that fallacy could be a real disaster as the diverse diet encouraged by the WAPF is the only diet that I know of that does not condemn any food groups such as meats, fruits, complex carbohydrates, saturated fats, and other foods, including those that contain gluten. WAPF encourages us to eat from all the food groups while focusing on the healing of our gastrointestinal system or, as I like to call it, the body’s “central processor,” so as to be able to enjoy and receive nourishment from all of it!
Yes, I put the bag of almond flour back on the shelf and came home to dig into the gluten-free craze a little deeper. After nearly six months of meetings via email, reading many books, and numerous private phone conversations with some fantastic authors, business owners, and growers of ancient and heritage grains, I respectfully submit to you my findings. After a long absence due to my perceived fear of gluten, I now sit down to a delicious, warm slice of real sourdough bread and homemade butter. Ah, to eat what Grandmother served so frequently, and of which we relished every last bite, always eager to be right there when the fresh loaves were taken from the oven. This in my opinion is the way it should be, and I hope by the time you’ve read the rest of this article, it will be your opinion also.
THE TRUE GLUTEN-FREE CANDIDATE
Possibly the only true candidate for a totally gluten-free diet is a person who has damage to the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine called villi. Villi allow nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. When damaged, the body cannot absorb nutrients properly, leading to malnutrition—regardless of the quantity or quality of food eaten. This is celiac disease and those suffering from it must abstain from gluten in all forms. Unfortunately, celiac disease can be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, intestinal infections, iron deficiency, anemia and even chronic fatigue syndrome. It is estimated that about one percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease.
Although this article is not meant to discuss or address celiac disease as such, I am including information about the necessary testing that may determine whether a complete gluten-free diet is even advisable. The results of a blood test can help detect celiac disease. If a blood test comes back positive for the appropriate antibodies an upper endoscopy may be performed to assess possible damage to the small intestine, more specifically the duodenum. If there is flattening of the villi, those finger-like projections that absorb nutrients, the doctor will work with the patient to create a gluten-free diet. Genetic testing is also helpful for relatives of those with celiac disease, as the disease is hereditary and common among first-degree relatives.
NEWER APPROACH IN DIAGNOSTICS
A fairly new approach that seeks to provide more sensitive, complete and early screening is available from EnteroLab. Their test is based on earlier research which demonstrated that anti-gliadin antibodies appear in the contents of the intestines before they appear in the blood. EnteroLab utilizes stool samples to test for these antibodies in gluten-sensitive individuals with the hope of positively identifying the condition before more extensive damage to the body has occurred.
People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity generally have an unpleasant response to eating gluten. Symptoms can be similar to those of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome): bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence following the consumption of gluten-containing foods. They may also experience headaches or fatigue following the consumption of gluten. Unlike a true celiac sufferer, these reactions may not occur every time gluten is eaten; there is also no correlation with autoimmunity, making this very different from celiac disease.
Wheat allergy—the third form of gluten intolerance—is a histamine response to any of several different forms of protein, including gluten, found in wheat.
Some of those going gluten-free may have decided to give up just baked goods like breads or cookies, and other easily recognized wheat-based foods, failing to understand that they are still getting plenty of gluten from other sources. One of the reasons a diet completely free of gluten is so challenging is that gluten is present in many processed foods, not just those whose main ingredient is wheat, barley, or rye. Just a few of these include frozen vegetables, sauces, soy sauce, many foods made with “natural flavorings,” vitamin and mineral supplements, some medications, and even toothpaste. Of course, this is one more in a long list of reasons to stay away from most processed foods, and focus instead on those you prepare yourself!
According to Dr. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, a true gluten-free diet is time-consuming, expensive, and restrictive. “It’s a gigantic burden for those who have to follow it,” says Dr. Leffler. “Many people with celiac disease are understandably frustrated when they hear in the lay press how wonderful this diet is.”
The potential disadvantages of many glutenfree flours are similar to those of any refined flour: too much starch, too little fiber, and a lack of important vitamins and minerals. Just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s not refined. Many gluten-free bread and baking mixes have added sugar, and many recipes and mixes require the addition of xanthan or guar-gum to provide the structure found in flours containing gluten. Almond meal, which is currently one of the most widely used gluten-free flours, while rich in protein and other nutrients, is expensive, as well as high in phytates and omega-6.
Coconut flour, which I personally love and use often for reasons other than avoiding gluten, is the only other flour I bake with because it has several desirable characteristics which, according to Dr. Bruce Fife, author of Cooking with Coconut Flour, “makes it a promising substitute for those who absolutely must avoid wheat flour. It is a good source of a variety of nutrients, including protein. It contains about 10 to 12 percent protein, which is the same as whole wheat flour. It is an excellent source of dietary fiber, reducing its digestible carbohydrate content thus making it the only truly low-carb flour. Another benefit of coconut flour is its mild taste. You would think that it might taste like coconut, but it doesn’t. It is nearly tasteless. When used in baking you cannot detect any coconut flavor. This is good because it takes on the flavor of the product being made. The primary benefit of coconut flour is its complete absence of gluten.”
Coconut flour is also low in phytates, and has a great fatty acid profile. It does take a lot of eggs to make satisfactory baked goods with it, so baking can get expensive, and there are a fair number of people with egg sensitivities which may make using coconut flour, an otherwise healthy gluten-free flour, impractical for some.
DEALING WITH THE SYMPTOMS
I could write volumes on the dangers of making gluten-free flours your sole source for your baking and cooking needs; however, I wish to proceed to the substance of this article, and introduce ancient and heritage grains and organic whole wheat flour, which far outweigh the nutrient value in all gluten-free flours. (Some also happen to be low-gluten.) How many of the issues we so readily attribute to this recently identified poison called gluten are really issues with overall digestion or, as happens with many of us, are simply the result of being swept up in the gluten-free craze? Most important, do we understand that it is not necessarily an issue with wheat overall, but a misunderstanding about the types of wheat and grains that were used in a healthy ancestral diet and which very few of us now use?
If you are experiencing symptoms that you believe may be attributed to gluten, and when you’ve not had your condition diagnosed via the tests I mentioned earlier to determine whether you are in the category of a true case of celiac disease, it may be time to deal with your symptoms by addressing the most problematic issue—that of healing the gut and slowly reintroducing one of the earliest and most healthful foods enjoyed by our ancestors.
You may be pleasantly surprised that you, too, can finally get off the gluten-free craze. Remember that when we stop consuming a food, we naturally stop producing the enzymes that help digest that food. That fact by itself may explain why each time you try to go back to consuming wheat breads or other wheat products, they make you sick. You may be one of the unfortunates who have now lost the enzymatic capacity to digest almost any form of gluten. The sad part for me is that many parents are allowing this to happen to their children and other family members while not realizing that this may truly create a life-long inability to enjoy wheat products.
Katherine Czapp, in her article titled Our Daily Bread, notes that her father, Vasili, diagnosed with full-blown celiac disease, could eventually eat whole grain sourdough bread, slow-fermented in traditional Russian fashion, with no digestive issues. It is crucial to note that this occurred after nearly two years of very concerted effort to restore his gut health. While this success may not be possible for everyone, this should certainly offer a more sensible direction for us to pursue what may be more sensible than going through the challenging exercise of making gluten-free baked goods from substances like almond, potato, tapioca, and bean flours, which may or may not be necessary for a short period of time while you re-introduce your digestive tract to the high-vitamin, mineral, and fiber-endowed heritage grains such as einkorn, emmer, spelt and even some heritage organic whole wheat or one of our more modern organic whole wheat breeds that are grown without chemical treatments.
ANCESTRAL GRAINS: POSSIBLE CURE TO THE GLUTEN-FREE CRAZE
Landrace, heritage and ancestral grains are best defined as those that originated in one of their native countries such as Iran, Syria, Turkey, or Russia, and have gratefully made their way through history without a complete change in their make-up. The three that are now slowly being brought back into use are einkorn, emmer, and some forms of spelt. Organic whole wheat varieties are best defined as wheat which may or may not be landrace grains, as not all grains that have had an evolution from landrace grains to our modern wheat varieties are to be avoided. What is of critical importance for those of us following an ancestral diet is that our sources of whole wheat are grown organically without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
A CLOSER LOOK AT ANCIENT GRAINS
Now that we all “know” that even heritage grains (which include einkorn, emmer, spelt, and triticum landrace) and organic whole wheat varieties, rye, and barley (and maybe oats) contain gluten, let’s look a little closer at the actual structure of grains so we can better understand the differences that make these heritage grains so valuable to our health.
Somewhere in our own history, we discovered the value of the concentrated source of nutrients in every ancestral grain or wheat. Properly prepared (by soaking, sprouting and dehydrating, or leavening with wild yeasts), the nutrients stored within the grains were freed to be used by our own bodies, and use them we did, supplementing the other foods that had nourished us for thousands of years: animal-sourced foods and other plants.
Every kernel of grain has protein, fats, carbohydrate, and fiber, stored neatly in a package protected by a fibrous outer layer called the hull. The bran is the outer layer of the grain. Next is the endosperm. The heart of the grain is the germ. The bran (14.5 percent of the kernel’s mass) is made of protein, fiber, starch, fat, and many B vitamins (all these are lost, of course, when grain is milled, removing the bran). The relatively high fat level in bran means that the grain—once hulled—can quickly go rancid (a good reason to store whole grains in a cool place and use them quickly once ground).
The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel, with 83 percent of its total mass; in wheat, this is the part of the grain that, once the bran and germ have been removed, is milled into white flour. The endosperm nourishes the germ it wraps around until the seed has taken root and started to grow into a new plant. While it is rich in starch, it also contains about 75 percent of the protein plus iron and B complex vitamins.
Finally, the germ, the smallest part of the wheat kernel (2.5 percent of the whole), also contains numerous B complex vitamins and vitamin E. About 8 percent of the protein found in wheat is in the germ.
Minerals found in grain can include calcium, iron, phosphorus (bound up as phytic acid), magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, iodine, chlorine, sodium, and silicon. One bonus supplied by wheat is betaine, a substance that protects our cells against stress, and stimulates the body’s production of vitamin B12.
EINKORN (FARRO PICCOLO)
With its simple chromosomal structure, high lutein content (which supports eye health), and long history of cultivation (dating back nine thousand years or so), einkorn can be handled by many people who react badly to readily available commercial wheat, and is low (mellow) in gluten content. Emmer, also known as farro medio, is another grain known to history even longer than einkorn. Emmer also holds the distinction of having more protein than any other member of the wheat family, a whopping 28 percent. Spelt, the favorite grain of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a mystical healer of the 12th century, is only slightly younger (references to it date to around seven thousand years ago). It is the first of the hexaploid grains but can still be considered ancient. It too is often easier to digest than newer forms of wheat. (Though, in their defense, even bread wheat—soft or hard, red or white—dates back at least six thousand years.) Rye, which does not contain true gluten, can be problematic for celiac sufferers because of the similarity of the protein structures, but often presents no problems for those with sensitivities to gluten.
BREAD WITH BUTTER
One of the mistakes we have made in the modern world is to eat our grains without any fat. Yet good quality fat makes bread more digestible and supplies fat-soluble vitamins so essential for gut health. Arachadonic acid supplied in butter and other animal fats is needed to make tight cell-to-cell junctures in the skin, including the “skin” lining the intestinal tract. So always look for teeth marks in the butter (or ghee, lard or bacon fat) that you are spreading on your bread. If you can’t see teeth marks, you are not putting enough on!
My main objective in writing this article is to remind myself and others of the fact that by going too far afield from our ancestral diets we may unfortunately impart to others a fear of eating foods that have sustained mankind for thousands of years. It is unfortunately easier for some just to avoid ancestral foods that we incorrectly indict as the culprit rather than doing the detective work to resolve the real issues with our digestive imbalances.
Finally, it is wise to remind ourselves that we are in real danger of losing the privilege to enjoy and benefit from these ancient grains grown by enough farmers to supply the demand. My heart truly went out to many small growers I spoke with who struggle to make a living to supply us with one of the most precious commodities known to mankind: ancient grains. Promise yourself some serious consideration of the subject and try making your next step a commitment to heal your gut. Then you may be ready to step back into the time when ancient grains were considered the staff of life. And indeed, they still are.
WHILE WE ARE AT IT, LET’S BUST SOME WHEAT MYTHS
I know I can’t digest wheat because I stayed away from it for a full year and then got sick when I ate a slice of bread.
“Use it or lose it” works for enzymes in our gut, too. Stay away from a food for a long time and your body will ramp down the production of enzymes needed to digest that food. So when you’re reintroducing any food you’ve avoided for a long time, start with small amounts and don’t eat them every day. Your gut will start producing the proper enzymes if you give it a chance. Disclaimer: There are many cases of people suffering from wheat allergies who do in time lose that allergy; however gluten intolerance in the case of celiac disease is not reversible, although I’ve recently talked to a learned holistic practitioner who disputes that claim. For the present, always follow your medical doctor’s recommendations.
Wheat makes us fat and foggy-brained.
Ancestral grains and wheat have been part of the human diet for well over ten thousand years, and have supplied valuable nutrients to those who cultivated it. However, the wheat varieties developed since the 1950s as part of the Green Revolution (semi-dwarf wheat and, later, mutagenic wheat), the most common forms of wheat available, are different from earlier forms, and are much more likely to cause a whole host of problems. Please don’t blame thousands of years of perfectly healthy grains just because of problematic offshoots that are not being grown organically and which for the most part are only about fifty years old. In addition, although wheat is not genetically modified (not yet!), it is treated with the herbicide Round-Up a few days before harvest. Only recently we are learning that Round-Up is associated with a host of problems, including digestive disorders, gluten intolerance and even autism.
Consider using healthy grain and wheat sources without the modern wheat consequences by sourcing landrace, heritage or ancestral grains. In 2000 Monica Spiller founded the non-profit Whole Grain Connection to promote whole organic grain foods for everyone and particularly to supply farmers with locally appropriate organic wheat seed. She states that organically grown modern whole wheat varieties that have not been treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers may also be a safe alternative for some. Certainly you would want to test this for yourself.
Modern wheat is bad because it has too many chromosomes.
Some of the oldest forms of wheat, starting with spelt (which dates back to 5000 BC), have the same number of chromosomes as modern wheat. The problem is with a specific fraction of the gluten and suspect proteins in modern semi-dwarf wheat, not the number of chromosomes it has. Cereal grains come in varying genetic complexity. If you believe in eating less complex grains, einkorn , barley, and rye are diploid, with two sets of chromosomes; emmer and durum including kamut are a little more complex; they’re tetraploids with four sets of chromosomes; spelt and bread wheat varieties are hexaploid with six sets of chromosomes. All of these are perfectly edible and need not be avoided when your source of ancestral grains and modern whole wheat is carefully chosen.
Wheat was never part of our healthy ancestors’ diets.
On the contrary, all grain has been prized in those cultures that grew it. However, up until industrialization wheat flour contained the bran and germ of the kernel; the modern roller mills remove the healthiest parts of the kernel and make modern flours nutritionally deficient. Since neither commercial yeast nor mills to grind the grain without its bran and germ did not exist until the modern era, all grains were eaten in an unrefined state and prepared in ways that not only preserved them but enhanced their nutrition. Long-fermented wild yeast breads (sourdough); sour-leavened flatbreads (like pappadum or pita in India, for example); fermented sourdough noodles; and fermented porridges (kishk and nuruk are both wheat-based) all provided solid nutrition for our ancestors.
Grains are the problem; wheat is just the worst offender.
Grains—including wheat—have been part of traditional diets for thousands of years. Also note that we are part of the first generation or two in which chemically grown wheat treated with pesticides may be virtually the only wheat some of us have ever eaten. Add to this the fact that most are eating foods damaged in one way or another by modern processing overall, such as extrusion to make breakfast cereals (not to mention eating completely new foods and additives). Further, our guts have often been more or less damaged by not just these foods but by courses of antibiotics and other gut-compromising pharmaceuticals. Is it any wonder that so many people have digestive issues that can be exacerbated by a form of wheat that itself is novel before it’s even ground into flour?
HEALING THE GUT: OTHERS HAVE DONE IT AND YOU CAN TOO!
The following are suggestions from Sally Fallon Morell:
1. Get off all improperly prepared grains initially and then slowly re-introduce heritage grains and organic whole wheat properly prepared.
2. Lots of bone broth is needed as the villi rest on a layer of collagen that must be supported. Plus bone broth has numerous other benefits: http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/broth-is-beautiful
3. Learn to make and regularly consume fermented foods and beverages.
4. Take cod liver oil and high vitamin butter and other good fats.
5. Always avoid all improperly prepared grains, such as granolas, muesli, and extruded breakfast cereals.
6. Work with a WAPF practitioner to help guide you.
7. Dr. Thomas Cowan in a recent email suggested the use of a Standard Process supplement called Okra-Pepsin E3 which is gluten-free, along with our nourishing traditional diet recommendations to also assist healing the gut.
From Nourishing Traditions, page 493:
Weston Price’s studies convinced him that the best diet was one that combined nutrient-dense whole grains with animal products, particularly fish. The healthiest African tribe he studied was the Dinkas, a Sudanese tribe on the western bank of the Nile. They were not as tall as the cattle-herding Neurs groups but they were physically better proportioned and had greater strength. Their diet consisted mainly of fish and cereal grains. This is one of the most important lessons of Price’s research—that a mixed diet of whole foods, one that avoids the extremes of the carnivorous Masai and the largely vegetarian Bantu, ensures optimum physical development.
From Nourishing Traditions, quoting Jacques Delangre, page 491:
In books on baking and even in nutritional/medical writings, the two techniques (for making bread), natural leaven (sourdough) and baker’s yeast, are often mingled and confounded….Baking with natural leaven is in harmony with nature and maintains the integrity and nutrition of the cereal grains used…The process helps to increase and reinforce our body’s absorption of the cereal’s nutrients. Unlike yeasted bread that diminishes, even destroys, much of the grain’s nutritional value, naturally leavened bread does not go stale and, as it ages, maintains its original moisture much longer. A lot of that information was known pragmatically for centuries; and thus when yeast was first introduced in France at the court of Louis XIV in March 1668, it was strongly rejected because at the time the scientists already knew that the use of yeast would imperil the people’s health. Today, yeast is used almost universally, without any testing, and the recent scientific evidence and clinical findings are confirming the ancient taboos with biochemical and bioelectronics valid proofs that wholly support the age-old common sense.
1. Gene Spiller PhD & Monica Spiller: What’s with Fiber www.wholegrainconnection.org
2. Victoria Bloch-chapter leader–http://www.meetup.com/Los-Angeles-Whole-Food-Nutrition-Meetup-Group/
3. Mandy Finan/Einkorn recipe creator and Weston A. Price chapter leader-NC
4. Marsha Cosentino MA-: Spelt Healthy
5. Richard Scheuerman: Harvest Heritage: 2015 Grower email@example.com
6. Don Stinchcomb-Consulting: Vita Spelt/Natures Legacy- http://www.natureslegacyforlife.com/
7. Brooke Lucy-Blue Bird Farms-Consulting: – http://www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com/
8. Rene Grun-Lentz Spelt-Consulting: http://www.lentzspelt.com/
9. Carolyn Graff-chapter leader/WI-Shopping Guide Mgr. Shoppingguide@westonaprice.org
10. Comment: Dr. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston: http://www.bidmc.org/Centers-and-Departments/Departments/ Digestive-Disease-Center/Celiac-Center.aspx
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2014