Somebody comes up to you and offers you a cookie, and you’re like, “Ah, cookie! Thank you!”
And they’re like, “It’s gluten-free!” and you’re like, “Ugh.”
But you get to wondering: What is gluten exactly?
And why do so many people avoid it?
And why do cookies without it taste like crumbly pieces of cardboard?
Gluten, from the Latin word for glue, is a sticky protein composite, found in cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye.
In addition to being a key nutrient in the grains themselves, it’s an important protein source.
It’s used in imitation “Wheat Meats” like seitan, mock duck, and phoney bologna.
Because of its stickiness, it’s also a good stabilizing agent, which is why it’s found its way into things like soy sauce and ketchup, cold cuts, and even lipstick.
Historically speaking, gluten has been one of humanity’s best friends.
Palaeolithic humans in ancient Europe gathered and processed wild grain seeds as far back as 30,000 years ago and people started cultivating grains about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.
This providing a high-calorie food that stored and travelled well.
Since then, Wheat has become one of the most widely-grown crops in the world.
So why, now, the sudden war on gluten?
These days you can’t reach for a block of tofu without stumbling on a stack of gluten-free crackers.
Part of it, let’s be honest, is just fad diet marketing, but gluten can seriously mess you up if you have an intolerance to it.
Celiac disease is a digestive condition.
It’s triggered by eating gluten but it’s not a food allergy, it’s an autoimmune reaction.
With a food allergy, your body’s mounting an attack against compounds in food that your body mistakes for an infectious invader.
Usually, it’s a starch or protein in something that you ate.
But with autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and celiac disease, the body attacks its own tissue, thinking it’s the invader.
In the case of celiac disease, the immune system targets the villi, the tiny hair-like projections that line the walls of the small intestine.
Because it requires a foreign substance, gluten, to trigger it, the condition is sometimes mistaken for a food allergy.
But true celiac disease affects only about 1% of the world and only about 1 in 133 Americans.
However, as many as 1 in 20 Americans may have gluten sensitivity, which is a general label given to patients who have a hard time digesting gluten but who test negative for celiac disease.
So, are gluten-related ills on the rise, or are they just better diagnosed now?
Well, it’s probably some of both.
Studies have found an increase in the prevalence of gluten sensitivity over the last 50 years. Sensitivities are even popping up in people who have safely eaten wheat for years.
Which suggests environmental influences may be to blame.
A big part of it seems that people are just eating much more wheat, and therefore gluten, than ever before.
As our diets tend toward more starchy, processed, and fast foods and fewer fruits and vegetables, the grains that used to be a staple of our nutrition are quickly becoming our whole diet!
Which our bodies just aren’t set up for.
And it doesn’t help that gluten’s being used in places that we’re not expecting like ketchup and cosmetics.
What’s more, modern grains are being processed differently than they used to be.
They’re taken out of fields faster and not fermented or sprouted or milled in the ways that historically made them easier to digest.
When grains are allowed to sprout, for example, the sprouts release enzymes that start digesting them for us.
Unsprouted grains are harder for our guts to process.
Finally, like most other crops, wheat has been crossbred and tinkered with to create bigger, high-yield Megatron strains with more gluten in them, that barely resemble their ancient counterparts.
So perhaps some bodies just can’t keep up.
All that said, unless you’re really gluten intolerant, most doctors don’t recommend hopping on the gluten-free train.
Such diets can be difficult to follow and, like all food restrictions, they can have some serious nutritional drawbacks.