Wheatless in Los Angeles: Why Does the New York Times Hate the Gluten-Free?

Readers of this blog know that Steve and I keep a mostly raw food diet, which was spurred in part (for Steve especially) by giving up wheat. That happened a few years back when I taught a research methods class that used Michael Pollan‘s book, In Defense of Food, as its core text. During the course, William Davis‘s book Wheat Belly also came out, and my students researched its findings, read its cited studies, found others. Steve and I subsequently gave up both processed foods (even raw ones) and wheat as a result. We lost fat, lowered our cholesterol, felt better. So we stuck to it. Since then, “gluten-free” has become a thing, a joke even, and we often find ourselves defending our diet choices. Here we go again, we say.

The paper of record, The New York Times, has once again (albeit on the “Opinion” pages under the frankly inaccurate title “The Myth of the Big, Bad Gluten”– tell a person with Celiac’s that it’s a myth) gone after the gluten free folk. And the author (Moises Velasquez-Manoff) once again proves my theory that it just seems so unbelievable that modern wheat might be bad for you that there is a deep need to come after perfectly harmless diet choice that people like myself make because it works for me. It’s baffling to me. I mean, if people are giving up a processed food in favor of fresher, greener things, what’s that hurting? Why be so nasty about it? So I thought I’d take a moment to answer a few points made in the article.

And of course Velasquez-Manoff rolls out the now familiar old chestnut, the “but humans have been eating wheat for thousands of years” argument. I suppose the paleo diet followers may use this argument–I don’t know who says this, because the author doesn’t cite anyone specific, but does go to great pains to trace how humans evolved lactose tolerance in an attempt to make a parallel with wheat. However: The argument is not that humans can’t tolerate wheat. The argument is that it’s at least clinically demonstrable that some people can’t tolerate modern, hybridized, processed wheat flour, which has only been around for a few decades.

The author then goes on to concede as fact recent increases in Celiac’s Disease, a truly miserable condition that causes a debilitating range of symptoms in its sufferers. Rather than see this as the end of a spectrum of tolerance, the argument turns to try to dismiss a series of theories about why this increase is occurring. He does this using one 2013 study to reject the possibility that increase in gluten protein in modern wheat may be responsible. The study finds that the amount of protein (in the form of gluten) hasn’t changed over time, but to my knowledge the theory started by William Davis in his book was that it was the kind of amino acid that was causing the problem, not the amount.

Are we just eating more wheat? This also gets dismissed, since the author cites another study that points out Europeans actually ate more wheat a century or so ago. But while it might be true that people consumed more wheat in the nineteenth century, the article ignores its own observation that the issue is with modern, hybridized wheat. Which they were not consuming in the nineteenth century–they were going over to the local mill, buying the freshly ground flour, taking it home and baking it (or buying that day from a baker who had done so). The problems with argument here drive me crazy.

All this seem to be in print because Velasquez-Manoff would like to propose his own theory about why you may be but are probably not gluten sensitive. He argues that recent increases in Celiac’s Disease are really due to increased immune system sensitivity–something that has been recently proposed with the rise of peanut allergies in children. But of course the article simultaneously sneers at those of us who do not have Celiac’s, but instead experience a range of other unpleasant symptoms when they consume modern wheat products. I’m not sure why that shouldn’t also involve the immune system and be just as valid, but sneering is something the Times does very well.

So as a last word, I’d like to just point out that modern wheat is a processed food. Bread that you buy anywhere, from an artisan bakery to your white loaf of Wonder, uses a processed wheat flour, called “enriched.” It has to be stripped of nutrients in order to have a shippable shelf life, and those nutrients (such as folic acid and B vitamins) have to be chemically added back into the flour. Usually, the “whole grain” part is added back in as well. This is true no matter how “whole grain” you buy, since all unprocessed wheat flour starts to go rancid in a very short time. If it’s widely recognized that processed foods are bad for you, why should something as basic and as omnipresent as wheat flour be any different?

Was wheat causing my digestion problems? Yes. Was it causing skin rashes? Yes. Headaches? Yes. I know this because I get all three of these things when I eat wheat, which I still do on occasion. But when Steve grinds some einkorn into flour and bakes a loaf at home, no problems. Was wheat causing other health issues? My early osteoporosis, asthma, weak immune system? That causality I can’t prove, because those are long-term problems that don’t just pop up when I have a slice of pizza. But since those things have disappeared from my overall health concerns, I’m not willing to take the chance, thank you, New York Times. Go have your sandwich and leave the rest of us alone.

Posted by Bobbie