01.03.2005

The Rise & Rise of Gluten Free - by Rosamund Burton

How things have changed. If you walk into your local supermarket today you are likely to find shelves of products that are "gluten free", and many cafes are now promoting gluten free cakes and bread. It seems that only a year or so ago, "gluten free" was the province of the very health aware and coeliacs!

Jean Davy and Jane Hall who run Allerjean Cafe at Sydney'sWarriewood Beach are typical of this emerging trendwith offerings including many organic ingredients anda broad range of gluten free products. "Our clientsinclude older folk who have had a gluten intolerancefor years and years, but it has not been recognised,"Jane explains. Also, they notice mothers bring theirchildren with coeliac disease and, for many, it couldbe the first time they have eaten outside the home.

But what is gluten? And why is there a sudden increase in these foods free of it? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and, to a lesser degree, in oats. It binds the dough in bread and other baked foods. Someone with coeliac disease has an immune reaction to gluten, and the tiniest amount of it can affect their immune system. Most people with a gluten intolerance are able to eat a very small amount of gluten and not be adversely affected.

Dr Bob Anderson is a specialist physician in gastroenterology, mainly doing research on coeliac disease, and immunology, and working out of the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He explains that the symptoms for gluten intolerance include irritable bowel syndrome, bloating and abdominal pain. He believes gluten free diets have, relatively recently, become so popular because irritable bowel syndrome is very common, and most of the people who have it feel better when they exclude certain food products. But he also emphasises the importance of being tested for an intolerance or allergy before putting yourself unnecessarily on a restrictive diet.

Coeliac disease, Dr Anderson continues, does not have such definitive symptoms as gluten intolerance, and a complete diagnosis involves a blood test, gastroscopy and small bowel biopsy. Also, many doctors are still coming to terms with the fact that it is a mimicker of other conditions. It is probably for this reason that although an estimated one per cent of the population has coeliac disease, only one in ten of those people has been diagnosed.

Judy Blereau is a wholefood chef and food coach, as well as being a regular contributor to NOVA Magazine. She says that gluten intolerance is definitely on the increase, but adds that what she sees in many of her clients is not a gluten intolerance as such, but an intolerance to wheat. And she believes we should look to the way wheat is processed for the cause.

Botanists have identified over 30,000 varieties of wheat, and it is one of the oldest known grains, thought to have been used by mankind since 15,000BC. When grown in a well maintained fertile soil, whole wheat is rich in vitamin E and B complex, calcium, iron and omega 3 fatty acids. But in standard commercial farming, the seed of this grain is sprayed with fungicides and insecticides before it is planted in the ground. Then the plant itself is sprayed with insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Researchers believe that these pesticides function as xenoestrogens, which mimic oestrogens in the body, and can upset the natural hormone balance. When the grain is stored, the bins are also sprayed with insecticides.

It is the bran, germ and endosperm which, together, give wheat its nutritional quality. Today, because mills reach high temperatures, the nutrients in the bran and the germ, which is a high source of vitamin E, are destroyed. Then, dough conditioners and preservatives are added, along with synthetic vitamins, and the end result is a standard wholemeal loaf.

Judy Blereau believes that, due to this process, an increasing number of people are finding bread, and other wheat products, no longer compatible with their systems. "One of the hardest proteins for the human system to digest is gluten," she explains, "and another is casein, which is the protein found in dairy foods."

In most traditional cultures, wheat is fermented or soaked, a process that breaks down the phytates. All wholegrains contain phytates, which are organic acids that act to inhibit the absorption of minerals. Soy is also high in phytates, which is why it should be soaked or fermented. An organic sourdough bread is far more digestible than wholemeal bread, because the wheat has been fermented.
Author of Janella Purcell's Elixir, Sydney-based naturopath Janella Purcell, believes many people eat far too much wheat, having it in some form or another three or four times a day, and this can cause intolerance.

"The best choice of bread is an organic wholegrain, the flour of which has been stone ground," she says. "Or better still, breads made from grains such as kamut, or amaranth." Janella also finds that often people who can't tolerate wheat can digest small amounts of rye, spelt and oats, even though they contain gluten.

The concept of a gluten free diet was first introduced in the 1950s by a paediatrician in Holland. He noticed that many children who were sickly got much better during the famine at that time. When the Swedish air force relieved the famine by dropping supplies including flour, the health of these children relapsed. Seeing this the paediatrician started to do clinical experiments, and pinpointed the cause of coeliac disease.

Studies into gluten intolerance have also shown that if gluten is introduced into a baby's diet when the infant is still being breastfed, then the child is better able to tolerate gluten, explains Dr Bob Anderson. And a study in the US has shown those most at risk as those babies breastfed for fewer than six weeks. Breastfeeding protects the child against infection in the gut. But, if a mother introduces gluten when a child has an infection or virus of some sort, the body can mistake the gluten for a virus, and continue to react until the gluten is withdrawn. An epidemic of coeliac disease occurred in Sweden in the early 1980s, following a paediatrician's advice that gluten should be introduced later. This advice was followed by a four to five-fold increase in coeliac disease in that country.

So, apart from taking gluten out of your diet, how do you overcome the intolerance? Janella believes it is important to repair the gut, rather than take food groups out of your diet for an indefinite period of time. It is very important, she emphasises, to give the body plenty of variety.

She recommends Umeboshi plums, a salty and sour variety from Japan, for removing any digestive complaints, as they are highly alkaline and antibiotic. Chamomile used as a herb is good for anxious guts, golden seal repairs the mucous membrane, meadowsweet takes acid out of the body, and andrographis, known as the king of bitters, is a liver, digestive and immune detoxifier. She also suggests that people take acidophilus to help balance gut flora.

And, Janella adds, if someone keeps the same patterns in their lives which caused the problem, such as working too hard, being highly stressed, or having a bad diet, then that will continue to exacerbate the intolerance rather than fix it. "Stress," she emphasises, "definitely exacerbates the problem."

When someone with a gluten or wheat intolerance comes to Judy Blereau she looks at their food history. "Usually, it's a situation waiting to happen," she says, uncannily echoing the views of Janella Purcell, "and it's no wonder that their digestive system is so fragile." She believes 60 to 70 per cent of the gluten intolerance cases she sees are caused by compromised digestive systems after years of mistreatment.

Food such as white bread, snack and breakfast bars, and mass marketed cereals are very demanding on the digestive system, says Judy. And muesli can be quite indigestible unless the tablespoon of oats is soaked in water overnight, and eaten with yoghurt and apple, as recommended by Dr Max Bircher-Benner, who originally came up with the recipe for his patients. Also, digestive disorders are caused by not eating enough vegetables, not eating proper meals, snacking and allowing yourself to get hungry.

So, if you are gluten or wheat intolerant, or a coeliac what about the gluten free alternatives on the supermarket shelves of which we are seeing more and more? While they have their place particularly in our time-pressed modern lives when they can form the basis of a meal, the real answer, say both Janella and Judy, lies in learning how to cook with gluten free grains such as amaranth, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, rice and maize. "It is about using real food instead of refined food," Judy explains, "and understanding how these grains behave, rather than reaching for a gluten free muffin mix or pizza base."

When people are diagnosed as gluten intolerant later in life, Judy Blereau advises calming their systems down, and then they will probably be able to eat gluten again. She suggests avoiding anything with gluten and soy and reaching instead for wholegrain porridges and stocks. When it comes to recommending the ideal diet, Judy's advice is to the point: "I have respect for only one paradigm, and that is Ayurveda. I see it working all the time."

Avoiding the offending grains even just for a short time can make a difference, Janella Purcell agrees. Among her clients, she finds that when wheat, rye, barley and oats are put back in the cupboard for as short a period as a month, there can be definite health improvements.

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