Yes, yes, I hear you, but I love gluten.
This article comes with a rant disclaimer.
I've interviewed an artisan superbaker who preaches the virtues of gluten-heavy bread done the slow way. She illustrates the beauty of the traditional loaf better than I ever could. However, if you still want to know why the gluten-free movement rubs me the wrong way, read on.
Last week I was tasked with serving a London socialite gluten-free, lactose-free meals three times a day, for five days, and I did. I don't believe in trying to make plant-based substitutes resemble dairy or wheat, but rather serving foods that inherently don't contain these allergens.
In short: keep potatoes potatoes and be done with it.
What I disagree with is the common misconception that following a diet reliant on gluten-free substitutes even in the absence of medical allergy is a healthier way to eat than consuming their gluten-rich counterparts. This post is now up here, out there, in cyberspace, and my shoulders are lighter for dropping the nerdishly technical load.
I am no nutritionalist. My appraisal of gluten is based on my own experience and study of human metabolism during my BSc and BSc(Hons) degrees. I speak as a fun-runner and a hungry student, so I can't account for ketogenic or paleo dieters who cut carbs altogether. All I know is that without carbohydrates, my metabolism would probably shut down by noon - and with carbs come gluten.
There's a French bakery beneath my window for goodness' sake! Gluten is glorious.
Spotting the Great Gluten-Free Grab-and-Go
We’re familiar with them by now. There are those little LCHF stickers stacked alongside rows of 'organic' (food miles) linseed oils and 'Banting-approved' (pharma for a profit) cookies containing little more than whey protein and coconut glue. Somewhere nearby is a smoothie fridge containing 'fresh' (yet bottled?), calorie-controlled juices, most likely in single-use plastic with a suspicious use-by date.
It’s as though the labelling validates the 60% markup. But why not elaborate on my pet peeve, since I’m at it?
The big selling point for many of these products is their alignment to the vaguest definition of the green revolution. One gluten-free importer labels their products “bio-friendly”.
I emailed to check with them - they don’t define this, and it doesn't seem their practices are any more eco-safe than the next supplier. The latest health trends sweep non-GMO, gluten-low, superfood-rich substances of unpronounceable origin into the same diet plan at a high environmental cost.
Words lose their meaning when we are used to reading "palm-oil free", "eco-grown", "certified organic", "GMO-free", "gluten/lactose-free" and "no added sugar" in the same square inch beside the logo.
Healthy eating can be misconstrued as a full-time occupation
It’s painful that in a world in which one in seven people cannot access enough calories to balance their energy expenditure, we see the rise of media-generated fads around what, how, when and where to feed ourselves. Food is becoming the obsession of the wealthy world. We eat too much of it, run it off of ourselves, fill our landfills with it and tell each other about how and where to find it in its most exotic form. People cross continents to try the speciality of a region or book months in advance for a Michelin visit. We become hyperaware of any bloat, distension or strain and immediately relate it back to the last thing we ingested. Forget bread-making Sundays - instead those are tied up with meal-prep and freezing broths and shakes until we have not a Tupperware or Ziploc left unused.
Getting technical about gluten
It’s a protein. Small building blocks of natural acids - 'amino' acids - form together as we metabolise to build pretty much everything on us. Keratin, muscle, skin - these are all animal proteins.
In the same way, gluten is a natural support protein found in cereals. Its two building blocks (glutenin and gliadin) spontaneously join into long chains when flour hits water. The resulting elastic is sticky and stretchy, and the wetter it gets, the stronger it becomes. It traps hot gas as the bread rises, making a ciabatta light and fluffy not sad and stodgy. Gluten makes bread. I like bread.
Gluten is inherent to many carbohydrate staples such as wheat, rye and malt. However, it is not present in purified rice flour, for example, which is what many of the exorbitant gluten-free breads are made from. Their refinement means they spike blood sugar levels beyond what we would normally lump into the 'health-food' category.
Coeliac disease: When cutting out gluten is necessary
Gluten intolerance sucks. It rules out the usual culprits: bread, crackers, pasta, couscous, oats, cereals, cakes, cookies, most thickened yoghurts, salad dressings. It also eliminates beers and ciders, vodka, malt vinegar, soy sauce, and frozen meals.
Coeliac disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system recognises gluten the same way it might a virus or pathogen, and attacks it. It’s called an autoimmune disease because the small intestine, which absorbs gluten molecules with other macronutrients, is also attacked by the body’s defences. It’s not fun. Because of the abundance of gluten within a few grams of starch, the destruction of the lining of the intestine causes bloating, diarrhoea, swelling, vomiting, which in severe cases can lead to death.
Chronic coeliac diets require a separation between gluten-containing surfaces and utensils and gluten-free ones. Ultimately, if one doesn’t have an intolerance, keeping up with the non-gluten trendies gets very costly very quickly.
Coeliac disease affects approximately only 1% of the world’s population. We are subscribing to misrepresented data - and it costs us a load. The US gluten-free market is approaching $7 billion. According to Forbes, that’s more than double Donald Trump's net worth.
In short, I'm not convinced these foods are more nutritious, or delicious, than their non-logoed counterparts. Their refinement has associated them with an uptick in Type II diabetes. They are highly purified, often imported, support multinationals and can thwart local crafters.
So why do I feel bloated when I eat bread?
The world’s growing need for more food for ever more mouths has led to a sad number of cut corners, especially in the developing world. Gameau's That Sugar Film struck many as a horror story narrating the additives and nasties pumped into our health-food staples. That post-sarmie bulge may be brought on by flour improver, or another suspiciously common ingredient: modified corn starch. This modification is what gives the corn its emulsive properties and is achieved by treatment with sodium/potassium hydroxide, electricity or heating.
After doing an introduction to artisanal breadmaking under Babette of Babette's Bread, I’ve become a big fan of stoneground flour, particularly rye for its flavour. The closer to home it’s milled, the better. One slice of the good stuff - yes, hot, and with butter - is filling enough. The protein content in good flour slows digestion and adds satisfaction. I don’t live in an ideal world where I can bake my own loaves weekly, but where I can twist my Mum's arm to join me for a day of kneading, I do.