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Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Thoughts on Gluten and Traditional Foods

Vegetarian sloppy Joes, made from wheat gluten
Just want to mention before I get into this that I'm not talking about scientific facts nor do I have research to back up what I am saying, this is just about my personal feelings regarding gluten.

I've come to the realization that the world revolves around gluten. The other day I was in town and I saw cafe after cafe, eatery after eatery, and all I saw was gluten.

Donuts.
Bagels.
Pitas.
Whole wheat bread loaves.
Croissants.
Baklava.
Phyllo dough stuffed pastries.
Cookies.
Muffins.
Brownies.
Flatbreads.
Fettuccine Alfredo.
Lasagna.
Pizza.
Onion soup with croutons.
Breaded chicken cutlets.
And even more innocuous looking, but still gluten filled dishes like those containing soy sauce, bread crumbs, and flour as a thickener... which is impossible to know just from seeing the foods.
When entering the grocery store, you see beer, pretzels, cereals, cookies, wafers, crackers, breads, and even chocolate which contain gluten.

Gluten is everywhere! I wonder why our societies eating habits are so firmly entrenched in eating gluten that its so difficult to find prepared gluten free foods unless you look really hard or go to specialty gluten free stores and/or restaurants.

I've shared many gluten filled recipes and some specifically gluten based recipes on my site and have even gone as far as recommending using gluten as a low cost replacement for meat in recipes.
Because of this, I've had bloggers write about my blog that "She has great recipes that are pretty healthy, but I can't get past the fact that she recommends serving gluten as a replacement for meat, as gluten is bad for you."

Is it? Is gluten bad? Is gluten unhealthy? Is recommending gluten as a meat substitute a terrible idea and an antithesis to what I stand for (in addition to frugality)- healthy, natural, traditional foods?

You know, I have very mixed feelings about gluten.
I am on a strictly gluten free diet, and everyone else in my household is on a relatively low gluten diet (sort of hard to go 100% when my husband isn't gluten free and brings home treats for the kids that contain gluten).
Am I on a gluten free diet because I think gluten is bad? Unhealthy? Non nutritious?
No.
I'm on a gluten free diet because I've discovered that I personally, feel a lot better when I don't ingest any gluten. Ok, let me rephrase- I'm on a gluten free diet because if I eat any gluten, I feel sick to my stomach and extremely fatigued.
Me.
Not necessarily everyone.

Everyone's body is different.
Some people are allergic to eggs. Does that mean that eggs are unhealthy and terrible to eat? No!
Some people are allergic to pollen (my husband is one). Does that mean that pollen is bad and unhealthy? No! It actually is a terrific high protein flour replacement that you can forage yourself, absolutely free, perfect for people on a gluten free or grain free diet.
Some people are allergic to nuts. Dairy. Tomatoes. Peppers. Fish. Meat. Peanuts. Beans.
Different people have different body types, and even among natural, healthy, traditional foods, there are people that their body cannot tolerate those foods. That doesn't make those foods bad and an unhealthy choice to eat; rather, those foods are bad for them.

My body, apparently, reacts negatively to gluten. I've discovered this only after 23 years of my life. I'm not really surprised though- my father has known for a while that his stomach can't handle gluten in large amounts (and would probably be best off going completely gluten free, but isn't willing to go that extreme). My mother, as well, has a stomach sensitive to gluten, and now is on a completely gluten free diet. She has Hashimotos Thyroiditis; none of the standard allopathic medicines are working for her anymore, and there have been studies showing the connection between this type of autoimmune disease and gluten intolerance. My mom, therefore, is on a gluten free diet with the hopes that by eliminating gluten, she can help her body heal from Hashimotos.
Is it a wonder then, that with my genes, that I've also turned out to be gluten intolerant?
Not only that, my genetic ancestry is purely from a specific branch of Europeans that have been scientifically proven to have a much higher rate of chronic stomach problems, most of which can be healed or at least improved by going on a gluten free diet... So, my body's make up is the type that reacts negatively to gluten, but if you've got different genetic ancestry, there's no reason to assume that gluten is distinctly unhealthy.

In fact, part of the reason I'm so torn on the gluten issue is that I love to go foraging. Around my house, there are fields and fields of wild barley and wild wheat. The weeds that pop up in people's backyards around here are mainly those. People in my area have been harvesting and preparing this gluten filled barley and wheat for millenia. Its natural. Its traditional. How can I actually justify saying that what these people have been eating for so long is distinctly unhealthy, especially as I'm a proponent of following a traditional foods diet? Can the food that grows wild in my area truly be unhealthy?

Not only that, the pure gluten whose recipe I have on my blog, seitan, while it was popularized during and after the 60's and 70's by the hippies and other proponents of vegan and vegetarian diets, is actually a very ancient and traditional recipe made by Buddhist chefs in Asia. Its not a modern, "new age" food by any definition of the term.
Seitan doesn't go through any special mechanical process or use any artificial chemicals in order to be made. Traditionally stone ground whole wheat berries were made into flour, mixed with water, and rinsed out underwater until the water ran clear to make seitan. This process has been around for ages...
How can I, in my right mind, claim that this ancient food made in its traditional process is unhealthy, but the ancient foods, butter, sauerkraut, sour dough bread, kombucha, etc... also traditional foods are not only healthy, but the healthiest types of food to eat?

I'm torn.

I can't eat gluten. It makes me sick.
But it is a traditional and ancient food. Just as traditional as butter. Just as traditional as fermented foods.

My verdict?
If you've got health problems, it may pay to look into gluten, to see if your body, too, reacts negatively to gluten, and perhaps to eliminate it if you see it is not healthy for you.

But if you're not someone with health problems? If you're strong as an ox and healthy as a horse?
Then I don't see why you should avoid eating gluten, and in fact, cooking with gluten may very well help lower your food bill.

But gluten, I have to say... I miss you. A lot. But my life is truly better without you. My love, never can we be together again.

What are your thoughts on gluten? Do you think it is healthy? Unhealthy? Neither? Why do you feel the way you do about gluten?
Do you understand why I have mixed feelings about gluten?

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