It’s infuriating how difficult eating has become. Reading labels is the equivalent to the classic card game “Go Fish”. Often the ingredients read like annotated Latin and worse, their composition is likened to the mystery flavor in Dum Dums. Recently, I discovered that chili powder, nearly all varieties, actually includes wheat. There is no way to find this out without scouring the internet, but really who’s going to just google chili powder at random? In my case, I am married to someone with celiac and years of horrible eating experiences have taught him a few lessons.
I don’t have a wheat or gluten sensitivity, but living with someone who does makes it near impossible to not get on board with the diet so everyone can enjoy meals together. Since drastically reducing my intake on some ingredients, I discovered that I do react to different foods now. But for me it has nothing to do with the wheat, it’s the quality of the food and the source of the ingredient. Dissecting the label and the right diet style is a personal experience because everyone’s makeup and lifestyle varies from person to person, and each body comes with a unique digestive system.The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center estimates that approximately 3 million Americans are living with celiac disease, and the range of sensitivity varies even within that diagnosis.
Every naturopathic practitioner, dietician, nutritionist, nurse practitioner will give you the same advice when you ask about food sensitivities—try an elimination diet. An elimination diet simply means cutting out foods and tracking how your body reacts when you’re consciously aware of what you’re eating. Though we track all sorts of information, our finish times, social media, favorite celebrities—hardly any of us take the time to track how and what we eat. But when you track your diet, you learn a few things about your habits, eating patterns, energy levels, and also where your wallet empties out.
Some people are allergic to gluten, a mixture of protein fragments in anything from cereal grains to peanut butter. The FDA ruling on whether or not a food ingredient is gluten free, comes down to if that ingredient tests for 20ppm or less. Gluten is nearly everywhere. And for folks who are allergic, the reaction is toxic. “For those who cannot digest gluten, you must eliminate all wheat products, as well as foods that contain barley and rye. Other gluten-containing ingredients include emmer, kumut, panko,farina, faro, udon, bran and orzo,” explains Elle Paula, a San Francisco nutritionist who writes for the San Francisco Gate.
And to make it more complicated, even if the ingredient list does not contain a wheat based product, often people with gluten and wheat sensitivities react to food that doesn’t contain wheat or gluten because it’s processed in the same plant as a wheat product. The proximity stirs enough toxicity to react. And then equally people as often experience no reaction to ingredients processed in a shared plant with wheat, and can buy uncertified products that are naturally wheat free to begin with because the source of the ingredient is of a higher quality.
So how do you know? Unfortunately, it’s trial and error. (INSERT THE BIG SIGH OF FRUSTRATION) And for some that’s a harder road than others. Although Celiac Disease can lead to nutritional deficiencies if left untreated, it is not as potentially dangerous as a wheat allergy. “In people with severe wheat allergies, the consumption of wheat and wheat-based products can cause anaphylaxi, a life-threatening allergic reaction characterized by swelling of the throat, chest pain, difficulty breathing, pale or blue skin color, dizziness, fainting and increased heartbeat,” finds Paula.
And then there are others who are actually allergic to the protein in the wheat itself, including wheat albumin and wheat globulins. People allergic to wheat will want to avoid wheat and its by-products, including: Bulgur, Couscous, Durum (durum flour and durum wheat), Einkorn, Farina, Farro (or emmer), Semolina, Sprouted wheat, Triticale, Wheat (bran, berries, germ, grass, malt or starch, plus all types of wheat flour).
Foods you might not suspect that contain wheat or wheat by-products, include beer, chili powder, salad dressing and even ice cream. One thing to look for in the ingredient list is hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified starch and “natural flavoring” as wheat is likely hanging around.
A little history on wheat from Ho Lewin at the BBC: Wheat (Triticum aestivum) has been the most important staple grain throughout history. Thought to have originated in southwest Asia, it has been consumed as a food for more than 10,000 years. Wheat is not native to the Western Hemisphere and was introduced here in the late fifteenth century when Columbus came to the New World. Today, wheat accounts for the largest cropland area of any food and is the most common cereal crop grow. If you think about that kind of monopoly, the most commonly grown crop in the world, any crop can suffer from poor production standards and from choices determined by the bottom line instead of for higher quality. Because simply put, it’s a competitive agricultural market and everyone wants to sell their harvest each year.
Wheat – as a raw material is very nutritious, especially when managed for higher quality over quantity. However, as a standard rule, processed wheat products such as pasta, noodles, cereals, breads and biscuits use white flour that undergoes a refining process in which the wheat grain is removed. By removing the wheat grain, the most nutritious aspects of the wheat (the bran and germ) are removed. As a result, more than half the B vitamins, folic acid, zinc, copper, phosphorous, calcium and iron are removed. Un-extracted, whole meal (whole wheat) products yield a good supply of dietary fiber and manganese. Wheat also contains a healthy portion of B vitamins, vitamin E and folic acid.
If the elimination diet does not confirm allergies, the next step is to undergo a series of blood tests looking for an antibody response to gluten. If the tests are positive, the next step is an endoscopy. If the endoscopy shows the intestinal cell damage characteristic of Celiac Disease, you can confirm the patient with CD. Currently there is no specific diagnostic test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
According to Dr. Leffler, director of clinical research at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, 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.
But despite the black and white, gluten free and wheat free are now trends, not just special diets. And those special diets are 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 gluten free flours are similar to those of any refined flour: too much starch, too little fiber, and a lack of important vitamins and minerals.
At KRF, we’re constantly advocating for real food instead of real diets. There’s no question that the higher quality of the food, the higher the quality of life for the consumer. Allergies are allergies, and food allergies are nothing to be trifled with. But understanding how and what you’re eating can lead to finding an eating style that’s not only healthy but produces optimum performance for you and your body. So be assertive and aggressive about your eating habits. Unfortunately relying on the old adage of “you are what you eat” actually means look up ingredients and find out the production methods.
Check out this quick list from WAPF about what to consider when weighing the values of protein choices in your diet. No extreme is healthy for anyone, gluten free, wheat free, vegetarian, vegan, regardless of diet, the right protein needs to be consumed with the correct counterpart in order to keep your body balanced. From the Weston A Price Organization:
- High quality protein must be part of any diet because of its overwhelming importance to physical and mental growth and wellbeing.
- For optimum health, protein containing all the essential amino acids in the correct amounts must be consumed every day; it cannot be stored in the body like fat.
- Animal proteins are the best kinds of proteins in terms of their nutritional value. Eliminating meat, milk and eggs because of the cholesterol and fat they contain means losing the high quality protein and other essential nutrients they provide.
- Plant proteins can provide the essential amino acids only if they are carefully chosen to balance one another, and then must be eaten in large amounts.
- An all protein diet is not healthy since it will overtax your kidneys; you need other foods as well.
- When eating high fat foods, it is important to eat protein at the same time.