Gluten-free craze not necessarily good for health

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The gluten-free diet began as a means to elicit awareness of celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease where an immune response is triggered in the lining of the small intestine in the presence of gluten, causing the malabsorption of nutrients.  Over the course of a few years, the gluten-free diet has become more mainstream. Gluten-free items line general grocery stores, celebrities tout its benefits and the public claims loss of fatigue, lethargy and bloating.

However, many of these individuals may not even understand what gluten is.

Gluten is created when proteins glutenin and gliadin come into contact and form a composite that lends to the elasticity and chewiness of bread. It is one of the most prevalent protein mixtures consumed and can be found in wheat, barley, rye and many other whole grains. However, when looking at human agriculture, wheat only entered the game 10,000 years ago.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is merely a blink of an eye. According to Dr. Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, this amount of time is not enough to elicit a genetic change in the metabolism of humans. Therefore, one can argue that the gluten in wheat is not something we are engineered to consume in the quantities that we do.

Researchers have argued that reducing gluten consumption leads to steadier levels of glucose throughout the day and that gluten sensitivity, a lesser version of celiac disease, is actually very prevalent in the general population. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, through a double-blind study testing gluten sensitivity, was able to support the idea of a state distinct from celiac disease.

However, the development of this “disease” has only been significant since 1950. Joseph A. Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, was able to genetically track the progression of gluten sensitivity and found that more individuals in the past 60 years have developed gluten sensitivity than before. It has also been found that wheat consumption has decreased since the 1950s inversely with incidence, which makes the situation even more confounding. This actually led researchers to believe that there was no problem inherent with gluten but rather overall changes to the human diet during that time that has created this autoimmune phenomenon.

There has been an overall shift from whole grain to white flour consumption since 1950, which has been correlated to malfunctioning microbiome, or the diversity of gut bacteria. This in itself could have caused overuse and death of bacteria required to digest gluten.

However, society is dangerously overcorrecting for white flour consumption by passing off wheat altogether. Due to the public hype around gluten, companies began increasing gluten-free products, which tend to be significantly more expensive than their conventional counterparts. They also tend to contain less fiber and fewer fortified vitamins than whole grains, since most gluten-free goods are just white rice flour. Whole grains are filled with minerals and nutrients required for proper bodily function, such as zinc, magnesium, iron, fiber and B vitamins. By cutting out an entire food group, many gluten-free individuals develop nutritional deficiencies simply for the purpose of following a national trend.

Although they are certainly not options for celiacs, foods containing gluten are not inherently evil. At this point, it is difficult to say whether people should remove gluten completely from their diets. We need more conclusive data directly connecting gluten to the digestive issues in the general population. At this rate however, giving up whole grains when there are no obvious clinical implications for one to consume gluten could cause more harm than good.

Faizah Shareef is a junior majoring in exercise physiology.