The Gluten-Free Boom

The Gluten Free Boom

I was born and bred in Perth.  Perth is a boom/bust town so I know a boom when I see one and we are most certainly going through a gluten-free boom.  It has been irritating me for a long time but a few things, lately, have made me really grumpy.

Choice Magazine, the Australian Consumers Association magazine, ran an article last month that got me going. The article advised:

“Coeliac Australia estimates that while just 60,000 (0.3%) of Australians have been diagnosed the coeliac disease, at least 10% of the local population are strictly controlling gluten consumption, and a further 18% are loosely controlling their gluten intake.”

Thirty three times more people than need be are strictly controlling their gluten consumption!  Why?  Choice Magazine advised that 65% of the population believe that gluten-free foods are healthier than foods containing gluten. This is despite the fact that “gluten-free foods are more likely to be filled with additives such as gums and stabilisers to help create the texture of wheat products.”

The article then went on to illustrate some supermarket rip-offs that people on a gluten-free diet have to tolerate.  Ordinary rice crackers cost $.99/100g but, with the words “gluten free” on the packet, they cost $2.49/100g.  Rice and potato chips cost significantly more in a packet containing the words “gluten-free” than in a packet without those magical words.  The article was full of similar examples and I recommend everyone read it.

A couple of days later, I noticed that Woolworths was releasing its own brand of gluten-free products and was offering 20% off the normal price for one month.  I assume this is to get people to try the products so that, after the one month trial, they may still buy them for up to seven times more than a similar product containing gluten.

I was more than shaking my head at this stage – I was really really grumpy.  How did this happen?  Clearly, there is demand for these over-priced products.

Most of the people who adhere to a gluten-free diet will tell you they are gluten intolerant.  The Choice article strongly suggests that “gluten intolerance” is a myth.  According to Choice:  “there is no test for gluten sensitivity accepted by mainstream medicine”.  The article then got exciting.  It  indicated that those who don’t have coeliac disease but report feeling better when gluten is removed from their diet, may actually have a problem with FODMAPS.

My interest peaked.  I had never heard of FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Disaccharides, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) before.  A quick internet search and I found the Monash University Medicine/Nursing and Health Services site and the Low FODMAP Diet for irritable bowel syndrome.

According to the site, irritable bowel syndrome is a common gastrointestinal disorder affecting one in seven Australian adults and is also common in the USA, Europe and many Asian countries. “This condition is characterised by chronic and relapsing symptoms; lower abdominal pain and discomfort, bloating, wind, distension and altered bowel habit (ranging from diarrhoea to constipation) but with no abnormal pathology.”

The research team at Monash University has developed a diet to control gastrointestinal symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome.

According to the site, FODMAPs can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine. Mal-absorbed carbohydrates are fermented by gut bacteria to produce gas. Current research strongly suggests that this group of carbohydrates contributes to irritable bowel symptoms.

Monash University has an app and a little booklet for sale.  I bought the booklet.  It appears FODMAPS are found in a wide range of foods.  Fructans (found in wheat, rye, onions and garlic) and GOS (galacto-obigosacharides) (found in legumes such as a chickpeas) are malabsorbed by all of us resulting in irritable bowel symptoms in some.  Humans do not have enzymes to break down fructans or GOS.

Fructose (found in certain fruits and honey), lactose (found in milk products) and sugar polyols – sorbitol (found in some fruits and vegetables) are only malabsorbed in some people.

It appears there is a breath test which identifies individuals who malabsorb fructose, lactose and/or sorbital.  The breath test does not cover fructans and GOS because, as mentioned above, they are malabsorbed by all of us.  Coincidently, gluten-free foods are, usually, based on rice flour, corn flour and potato flour which are low in fructans so, by going on a gluten-free diet, you would be reducing your FODMAPS.

Therefore, please, if you have gastrointestinal issues, get tested for coeliac disease,  Crohn’s disease and bowel cancer.  If all results are negative, you probably have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  The Monash University booklet recommends seeing a dietician and going on a full low FODMAP diet for 2 – 6 weeks then gradually re-introducing small amounts of FODMAP foods into your diet.  “Many people can return to their usual diet, with just a few high FODMAP foods that need to be avoided in large amounts.”

29 thoughts on “The Gluten-Free Boom

  1. Pingback: More on real food… and lamb in a cashew nut and mint sauce | Passion Fruit Garden

  2. Sorry for commenting so late on this post but I thought it deserved a few reads & thought. Gluten free has also taken the US by storm & for those who truly have celiac disease or sensitivities can at least go out to eat at a lot of restaurants now since they too have jumped on the bandwagon. Frankly I don’t see the need for the high mark-up on gluten free products & it’s just a way to increase profits. I just shake my head though at people who’ve decided they’re gluten intolerant without having any tests done – you know the ones who have a piece of bread, 3 bottles of wine & blame their problem on the bread. Sadly I think there are a lot of people who are in need of attention & will go out with friends making a big deal about how their food MUST be prepared no where near flour – like how about your own kitchen darling? I didn’t have a gluten problem but can appreciate the misery people with celiac go through as I was housebound for 4 years and down to 90 lbs. until I found a doctor who discovered that I had lymphocytic colitis (this too is apparently controversial since the 1st doctor I saw claims that there is no such thing). Unfortunately to get it under control I needed high dose steroids – fortunately it took care of the problem.
    I’ve been really interested in the genetically modified foods that we’re being subjected to here in the States & since wheat & corn seem to be prime targets for GM, I do wonder if we even know what we’re eating any more. At least in some countries, food must be labeled as GM – believe it or not, the first state to try to require that (California) was outvoted. Well, outvoted is an understated – the food industry outspent those who were trying to get the labels on. It comes down to money in our part of the world. My thinking is that those who are selling pure/real food should turn the tables & prominently label them NOT GM. Oh….and in an interview with a major food supplier when asked why they were averse to labeling food as GM, their response was that “people wouldn’t buy it”. Well … maybe we could have the option to know & decide. Sorry for going on but food is kind of important to me.

  3. I think the whole ‘gluten thing’ is very complicated. I’ve been on a gluten-free diet since I was two (over 30 years). I certainly don’t do it for fun! It drives me nuts when people go gluten-free by choice but then ‘cheat’ – makes things so much harder when you have serious health concerns and people don’t believe that a little bit won’t hurt.

    I don’t think gluten sensitivity (for want of a better term) is very well understood at all. I suspect there are different medical conditions related to gluten which are not yet known (and in addition to this understanding of FODMAPs) – or related to different components of grains which co-exist with gluten and therefore all get lumped together.

    Problems with gluten run through my father’s line. I’ve come to the conclusion that our family has some sort of reaction to gluten that is related to coeliac but different. We all have the genetic markers for coeliac but neither my grandmother nor father have ever tested positive to coeliac by biopsy. That said, if I eat gluten (knowingly or unknowingly) I get some sort of respiratory infection (usually bronchitis) and become unhinged. It makes no sense but the family all follows the same pattern. I don’t believe I react to the high FODMAP foods at all. The whole thing is frustrating!

    • Hi Ruth Why would anyone go gluten free by choice? You would have to be mad. What I don’t understand is people self diagnosing a gluten intolerance and then spending a fortune on processed gluten free products which are significantly worse for them (all other things being equal) than products containing gluten. It is very complex and requires serious investigation before one takes the gluten free route. As you point out, a person who has problems with gluten cannot have any gluten in their diet whatsoever. It is a serious medical condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly. BTW Thanks for stopping by an commenting.

    • Hi Susie, I read the article, twice. I do think she misses a critical point of the Monash publication. The publication recommends people with symptoms see a dietician and go on a strict diet for a very limited time and then reintroduce foods back into their diet. Most people only have problems with fructans so once the other FODMAPS have been ruled out they may only have to restrict fructans. Wheat, barley and rye are high in fructans and so would be omitted whilst on the strict diet. The publication suggests that most people will find that they can return to their normal diet with a few high FODMAP foods that need to be avoided in large amounts. A person who has trouble absorbing the FODMAPs in wheat may find they are able to cope with small amounts of wheat in their diet whereas a person with coeliac disease could not. This would make a huge difference to the person if they are currently on a gluten free diet. The person may also find that they don’t have a problem with rye or barley. Further, spelt sourdough bread is low in FODMAPS. Spelt is an ancient form of wheat, is readily available and makes fine bread. Spelt contains gluten so a person on a gluten free diet cannot eat it but a person who has trouble absorbing the FODMAPs in wheat can. Suddenly a whole range of foods would be open to them if only they were blaming the right culprit. My problem with it all is: to supermarkets it is just another market to make a buck from. Only 0.3% of Australian have Coeliac disease but there are (very expensive) gluten free products everywhere; 4.2% of Australians are diabetic yet where are the shelves selling sugar free products? Could it be there is no money in them?

  4. Great read, thanks for throwing a new angle on the whole gluten-free merry-go-round. My take is that Monsanto is to blame for most of the newly allergic / intolerant people in the world.

    We have a brand of flours in South Africa that only use non-GM wheat, Rye etc. to mill flour from – Eureka flours. Whether it is make believe or not – when I bake using their flour or buy bread made from this, I don’t suffer those symptoms. There is a artisan bakery that also only use their flour and have a minimum rising time for their breads of 18 hours – which is the other important factor named in the Mother Jones article you linked.

    • Hi Petro, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am sure modern wheat varieties, short rising times, added gluten, etc all contribute, but unless you have coeliac disease, it is unlikely to be gluten per se. Have you tried bread made with spelt flour? It contains gluten but is an old variety. The Monash University research find many who can’t tolerate new varieties of wheat can tolerate it.

  5. Years ago I worked as a weight-loss counsellor for a global weight loss company. Many people came in confused and desperate. Many people came in looking for someone to do it for them. For people with very real issues, food is a nightmare. Years ago a book The Yeast Syndrome literally fell off a shelf to my feet. It started a journey that I’m still on. Honest information is the key, not fads. The Monash FODMAP information is very good.
    Nutritional science/food-industry marketing has a lot to answer for. As Michael Pollan says “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. He writes a lot of good stuff on Nutritionism. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Now I eat anything but in moderation or sometimes in combination, e.g. I can only eat very small amounts of legumes and if I eat fruit I need to eat it with a protein/fat like cheese.

    • Hi Ella, That advice (Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food) is the best I have heard in a long time. I get so angry at all the processed stuff you see in supermarkets. You can’t even call it food. I am positive that is why so many people have gastro issues. Commercial bread, for instance, is left to rise only minutes, not hours (so how much yeast does it have in it?) and has so many additives (including extra gluten) no wonder people react to it. If they ate real sourdough bread, especially spelt, they maybe ok. Oh, I am getting excited now.

      • I get excited (and angry) too, but many people want to eat supermarket ‘wholemeal’ bread, low fat artifically flavoured-sweetened yoghurt, plastic cheese, cholesterol reducing margarine, powdered “soups”… because anything else would take too much effort and thought, and there’s always the reassurance of prescription medication… grrrrr. (Just spent a weekend with the family!)

  6. Thanks interesting article.

    I was told years ago by my GP that I had IBS and was gluten intolerant and I stayed on a strict diet consuming no gluten until last year when I saw a naturopath who did vaga testing on me. The test actually showed that I had a candida overgrowth in my stomach (everyone has candida in their bowels but it can become overgrown due to certain foods and antibiotics), my bacteria levels were out of control, and infact I was not intolerant to gluten, I am intolerant to wheat and yeast amoungst other things. Since having this test I have been able to eat oats, barley and rye which all contain gluten and have no stomach problems now. As you said Consuming gluten free foods is not a healthier option because they still contain numerous ingredients and most of the time the same amounts of carbs, sugars and salts. I couldn’t agree more that if someone is experiencing stomach problems they should get further testing, but I would recommend finding someone that does vaga testing for allergies and intolerances.

    • Hi Laure, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Your story just reinforces the fact that we shouldn’t self diagnose as it is more complex than we think.

  7. An interesting post, Glenda… I must say I’ve been tested twice (blood tests only) for coeliac disease and both times the results were negative… however, a biopsy is needed before tests can be considered inconclusive. About 12 years ago, my health was in a poor state (and I’m approaching that state again now)… I had bad IBS, was overweight, suffered migraines, bloating, tiredness, irritability, and a whole host of other things. I tried a grain free diet for three weeks, and the results were (after the first couple of days) so amazing, that I continued to eat this way for 12 months. I did try to reintroduce oats, but had a blinding migraine almost immediately. So I stuck with it. No grains. No rice, no corn, no oats nothing. Twelve months. I ate low fat (not fat free) foods as well. Lost 20 kgs, my IBS stopped, as did the migraines and all the other unpleasant IBS symptoms. FODMAP is interesting and was recommended me recently by a specialist, however I am finding that some of the recommended foods actually make my hiatus hernia worse. So, I think it is all a case of trial and error too.

    • Amazing Liz especially since you didn’t eat corn, rice and oats (which, as I am sure you know don’t contain gluten). Did you try introducing rice and corn back into your diet? I would be very interested in the results. Now, hiatus hernias are another issue …

  8. Well researched Glenda. It has long irritated me that gluten free products are considered to be healthier when for the most part they are all fillers, binders and starch. The best gluten free products are those that don’t try to emulate their gluten counterparts, but just exist on their own. Such as rice crackers, corn tortillas etc. Genuine celiacs aside, there are a couple of other thoughts as to why people think they cannot tolerate gluten. One is an imbalance of gut flora which aids digestion. Over time we have lost a lot of good gut flora and people that eat higher levels of lactofermented foods and probiotic bacteria have less gut issues than those that don’t. Another is the actual changes in plant breeding. Modern wheats, the source of most of our gluten products, have been breed to produce stronger flour, greater disease resilience etc. Wheat breeding is a fast paced sector, with new varieties appearing every few years. Our guts do not have the capacity to respond as quickly to these new varieties and some people have issues with them. A lot of people that cannot tolerate wheat flour find they can readily consume ancient relatives of wheat such as spelt. Hence the rise in spelt products.

  9.  Great article Glenda, I will surely pass this on to my daughters whom I suspect follow the Gluten trend too far. Jenny.

  10. Hi
    I am currently going through diagnosis for Gluten intolerance. The cost of Gluten free product is absolutely exorbitant – why anyone would follow it unless they had to is absolutely beyond me. I tried using packaged product of a couple of weeks but decided very quickly it was easier & more cost effective to make my own. This is time consuming but it at least allows you to have visability to exactly what you are eating.
    What makes my blood really boil is the major supermarket chain that brings in a line of bread products from Ireland ! Why is this necessary? What is wrong with the local product?

    • Hi Jill urrr, I get so mad with supermarkets. They create the problem with the processed rubbish they sell and then profit by introducing a new line which ‘solves’ the problem. If you do not have Celiac disease then the Monash University research may interest you. You may find you are having trouble digesting a lot of foods which, in small doses or with soaking etc, may be ok for you. Monash University recommends spelt sourdough bread for those with issues with commercial bread.

  11. Hooray Glenda for highlighting Fructose Malabsorption Syndrome!! I have lived with gut issues for many many years, but life is relatively normal after adopting the FODMAP diet. The Monash Uni app covers mainstream foods, but sadly is still not comprehensive, quinces I discovered recently are high in fructose. I try to avoid “gluten free” products. Very many are unsuitable for those following the FODMAP diet because of sorbitol, whey powder, onion powder and other flavourings/additives used to emulate the taste and mouthfeel of products with gluten.

    • Hi Sandra, I was thinking of you when I wrote this. You will note that Monash University recommends spelt bread for those with IRS. Does the app mention chestnuts? I wonder whether they are high in fructans or GOS.

      • No mention of chestnuts or rhubarb either. I made the chestnut flour Brownies, had only three pieces over 3 days and I was OK. Mal pigged out and suffered, and he has no known digestive issues! Interestingly it’s not gluten that causes the worst issues for me, it’s onion, inulin (used as a thickener) sorbitol (used as a sweetener) legumes and selected fruit and veg that cause the most grief. As Monash state, an exclusion diet for a couple of weeks then reintroduction of foods one at a time to isolate the true irritants is the best plan. The 100% spelt sourdough has been tricky to master, but this past week we’ve had very successful olive focaccia and pizza.

  12. I definitely agree that gluten-free is going through a boom. But that said I must defend the gluten-free labels. I personally am not sensitive and do not need to adhere to the diet but I have friends that will have their whole mouth and throat swell up if they digest even a small piece of food with gluten. Gluten-free is the producers way of informing (or that is what it should be) the consumer that the product has been made in a gluten-free environment. For example some people with celiac disease are able to enjoy oats if they have not been handled in the same plant as other grains. They are only able to buy the ones that say “gluten-free”. It is very common that products that are gluten-free have traces of gluten unless stated on the packaging. Glad I am not inflicted with celiac’s even though it does run in my family.

    • Hi Lara, I understand … but rice and potatoes… People with celiac disease are certainly benefiting from everyone else’s silliness, and that is fantastic. It must be so hard. At least now there is more variety for them.

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