Saturday 18 November 2017

Is 'gluten-free' really best for everyone?

Pasta and bread were once store cupboard staples, now many of us are replacing them with 'healthier' gluten-free foods. But are they really better for us? Julia Llewellyn Smith finds out

Gwyneth Paltrow
Nicole Richie with brother-in-law Benji Madden as she rapped about gluten-free spaghetti
The controversial tweet from 'American Idol' host Ryan Seacrest in which he pokes fun at the gluten-free trend
Novak Djokovic

IN A corner of my local, shabby, Tesco, whole new ranges of biscuits, breads, cereal bars and even fish fingers have suddenly arrived, all stocked under the label 'gluten-free'.

Starbucks around the corner is suddenly offering gluten-free sandwiches, Carluccio's has gluten-free pasta. A local church, I hear, has sourced gluten-free communion wafers made from potato. In the United States, friends tell me, there are even gluten-free dating sites, uniting enemies of all that's dough-based.

Gluten-free food, not so long ago a niche product for hippies and those with coeliac disease, is the sustenance of the moment. Socialite Nicole Richie rapped about "chillin' in my crib makin' gluten-free spaghetti". Gwyneth Paltrow has put her children on a no-gluten diet.

Novak Djokovic, who attributes his gluten-free regime to transforming his tennis, now has his dog following it. Even The Great British Bake Off recently devoted its quarter-final to "free-from" cakes and loaves.

Perhaps my muscle aches and worsening hay fever isn't the result – as I feared – of incipient middle age, but of my fondness for bread's springy texture, something gluten makes possible. If only I could renounce it, maybe my health would improve.

I'm not alone in my doubts: every week another friend serves me quinoa or macaroons – two gluten-free staples.

In a recent survey, more than 25pc of Americans claimed they were trying to cut down on gluten or avoid it completely.

It's increasingly easy to do so. While once gluten-free products were available only in the dusty corners of health food shops, today 80pc of all such products are sold in supermarkets.

According to the Food Standards Agency, the British gluten-free market is worth £238m (€282m) annually and grew by more than 15pc last year. In the US, it's worth around $2.6bn (€1.9bn), a growth of 36pc since 2006, with predictions it may double in size in the next two years.

The new ubiquity of gluten-free products certainly makes life much easier for sufferers of coeliac disease, an auto-immune response to wheat where the body believes, wrongly, that gluten is attacking it. This makes the finger-shaped vilii that line the small intestine flatten out, stopping absorption of nutrients, with side-effects including muscular disturbances, joint pain, headaches and vertigo.

But coeliacs make up only one in 100 of the population, while one-in-five of us is buying gluten-free products. Surveys of US consumers show that, of these, only 5pc are buying to combat coeliac disease, with the vast majority citing their reasons as "digestive health", "nutritional value" and "to help me lose weight".

People have been eating bread since biblical times without reporting adverse effects. So why has it recently become demonised? The gluten-free "community" points to a recent surge in the number of people being diagnosed as coeliacs.

Not so long ago, GPs expected to see one case during their whole career, but now 1pc of the UK population has it. Others say the rise is simply due to improved diagnostic methods and greater awareness of the condition.

"More and more people are coming to us saying they simply can't stomach industrial loaves," says Chris Young, co-ordinator for the Real Bread campaign in the UK. The cause of the change, believes Young, is connected to the Chorleywood process, a technique launched by British bakers in 1961.

By juggling a cocktail of enzymes and artificial additives and introducing three times more yeast than had been used before, scientists at the Chorleywood Food Research Institute in Hertfordshire created a loaf that could be baked instantly without the need for the long 'prove' or ferment before going in the oven.

The result was a loaf that lasted twice as long and was 40pc softer than previous types of bread.

"Bread is like fruit. It needs time to ripen and unfermented wheat appears to have a very bad effect on some digestive systems and in some cases, triggers the coeliac response," Young explains.

New, genetically modified 'dwarf' wheat developed in the past 40 years may also have played a part. "We used to grow wheat that was over 6ft tall, that was higher in nutrients and also contained a much smaller variety of gluten proteins than the dwarf varieties," he says.

There's no conclusive research into these theories. "We've challenged the big players, the food manufacturers for whom the bread industry's worth $3.2bn annually to put money into this, to find out why so many people can no longer eat their products," says Young.

"They just grumble there's no evidence fermentation brings benefits. But the reason there's no evidence is there's not enough research."

What Young certainly isn't saying is that we should avoid all bread. He stresses that traditionally proven loaves – especially sour-dough with its naturally occurring yeasts – appear to suit our digestive systems much better.

"People tell us all the time 'I can't eat factory bread, but when I go to France or Italy and shop at the little bakers, I have no problem'."

Nutritionist Ian Marber agrees that yeast, not gluten, may be the real culprit. "Some people find that when they switch to a yeast-free bread, made from wheat or other grains, their bloating decreases, suggesting that the yeast and sugars used were the issue, not the grain. But, in practice, they stop eating bread, bloating stops, so the conclusion that wheat must be to blame is understandable, but misguided."

A coeliac himself, Marber is firmly of the opinion that while gluten intolerance – usually symptomised by bloating and abdominal pains – does exist, in general, wheat, and gluten in particular, have become a convenient scapegoat.

"We're always looking for something to blame for everything that's wrong in our lives and having a food intolerance is the holy grail. We can say: 'It isn't the fact that I lie flat on my back and eat cream cakes all day that made me fat, it's the grilled aubergines I had for dinner last night. If I hadn't eaten them I'd be size eight and 6ft 3ins'."

Gluten, he continues, is an easy target "because it's so prevalent". Many foods that contain gluten, like pizza, cakes and biscuits, are high in calories, so by avoiding them, many lose weight. "If you make any adjustment to your diet, say you stop eating foods with the letter 'l' in them, you may well lose weight, simply because you're making far better food choices than you were previously," Marber says.

Marber acknowledges that gluten intolerance does exist, but probably in fewer cases than is generally believed. The only proper diagnosis for wheat intolerance is a test called a food challenge, carried out in a hospital.

The patient is blindfolded and tested for wheat under controlled conditions, then monitored over three days to see if they develop any symptoms. Depending on which foods they react to, a food elimination programme is carried out under strict supervision.

Unsurprisingly, many prefer 'high-street' testing of the sort available in many health food stores.

But this market is completely unregulated, with most tests, according to a recent 'Which?' report, producing usually "highly inconsistent" results with no diagnostic value. Even more of us prefer self-diagnosis via 'Dr Google', as Marber calls it.

"They eat a huge bowl of pasta and experience lethargy, bloating, weight gain and decide they must have a food intolerance, but they've just eaten too much pasta." In blind tests, three-quarters of people who believe they have an allergy or medical intolerance to bread show no signs of any symptoms.

While many of us are convinced that – coeliac or not – avoiding gluten will make us healthier, a study published last year in the 'Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' disagrees. It concluded: "There is no evidence to suggest following a gluten-free diet has any significant benefits in the general population.

"Indeed", it continued, "there is some evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut health in those without coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity." Other research has indicated that gluten-free diets are often low in fibre and can be linked to deficiencies in B vitamins, iron and folate.

As Marber points out: "If gluten really is the root of all evil, then coeliacs, who really can't eat it, would be in perfect health. I've been avoiding gluten since about 1823," he jokes, "but I still have all the normal aches and pains and health issues."

Yet the views of people like Marber won't prevent a tsunami of gluten-free products invading our supermarket. Several kitchen-table entrepreneurs who started making gluten-free loaves for coeliac relatives are now millionaires.

Tesco peddles a heart-warming story of how its former chief executive Sir Terry Leahy appointed the mother of a child who suffered from several food allergies to set up his "free-from" range, after she wrote to him complaining about the lack of suitable foods available.

But though he may have been moved by her plight, he almost certainly would have been excited by the commercial potential. A gluten-free label equates to a large mark-up (though manufacturers argue that this is a result of higher production costs).

Recently, US food giant General Mills boasted of double-digit increases in sales of its Chex cereals after it was repositioned as gluten-free. Even products such as humous, which have never contained gluten, are now being labelled "gluten-free" by canny shopkeepers, to make them more attractive to the health conscious.

But a gluten-free label is no guarantee of virtuousness. While most dieticians would recommend someone with a genuine gluten intolerance focuses on a diet of fresh meats, fish, vegetables and unprocessed foods, the food industry prefers to market substitutes for "banned" foods like biscuits, sausages, beer and ice cream – which many then believe, wrongly, they can eat guilt-free.

Dunkin' Donuts recently announced it was about to launch gluten-free doughnuts after years of failed attempts. Obstacles included the fact that gluten-free products were hard to mould into a circular doughnut shape and went stale quickly (because gluten holds in water).

Gluten-free products are frequently more adulterated and significantly higher in fat than their 'normal' equivalents. Gluten helps breads and bakery products retain their shape and softness as they cook, so in order to make up for its absence, manufacturers often use additives like xanthan gum and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose or corn starch. Extra sugar and fat are often also added to make products tastier.

Inevitably, in the US, a gluten-free backlash is already under way. 'Coeliac: the Trendy Disease for Rich, White People' is a typical recent headline in the popular blog, Science 2.0.

Unfortunately, the gluten-free community has even less tolerance for jokes than for pasta. 'American Idol' host Ryan Seacrest was recently savaged on Twitter for his tweet about trendy new TV show 'Orange Is The New Black': "Orange is the new black is the new gluten-free diet", Marber predicts that these voices will only grow louder. "Our attention will turn to other diet trends, but the gluten-free craze will grow and grow." Following a gluten-free diet isn't actively harmful, he adds. "If it makes you happy, do it!" he laughs.

"By buying that expensive stuff, you'll certainly be making someone else very happy."

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