Apart from the inherent problem of labelling food guilt-y or guilt-free, people have come to incorrectly associate gluten-free with healthy.
“It makes you fat,” cries one woman on Jimmy Kimmel’s viral vox-pop, What is gluten?, when asked why she avoids it. (It’s protein found in wheat, rye and barley that gives bread its delectable chewiness, in case you wondered.)
She must have been getting her nutritional advice from Miley Cyrus because, as Jeff Wilser explains in his new book The Good News About What’s Bad For You, the “misguided” gluten-free fad can actually make you gain weight.
Hold on to your rice-paper roll because it won’t necessarily make you healthier either.
“Many people eventually gain weight on a gluten-free diet,” Dr Shelly Case, author of The Gluten-free Diet: The Definitive Resource Guide, tells Wilser. She says gluten-free foods have encountered a similar problem to fat-free foods: whatever has been removed must somehow be replaced.
Many manufacturers swap the gluten for sugar or fat to add flavour and texture.
Author and food activist Michael Pollan agrees, arguing that bread-denial is bad.
“Gluten is bad for some people, but I think a much smaller number than we think,” he says in a new Netflix series Cooked.
“There are people who have a genuine gluten intolerance, and then I think [there are] a lot of people who think they do.”
In Australia, about 1 to 2 per cent suffer coeliac disease (an auto-immune condition that results in inflammation of the small intestine when any gluten is ingested), but about 10 per cent – or two million – of Australians are coeliac-free actively avoid gluten.
Pollan suggests any problems coeliac-free people think they may have as a result of gluten can be solved by sticking to a certain type: fermented gluten.
“If they ate bread that’s undergone a long sourdough fermentation, they wouldn’t have any problems,” he says.
Why? There is an ongoing debate about whether it is gluten or some other component of wheat that triggers the reported symptoms in the coeliac-free.
“Fructans, for example, are short-chain carbohydrates that are found in wheat-based products, as well as other foods,” says the CSIRO.
“For a proportion of the general population, fructans, along with other short-chain carbohydrates (collectively called FODMAPS), can trigger symptoms like bloating, wind or cramps by holding water in the gut or through the rapid production of gas by intestinal bacteria.”
Fructans are broken down by the gut-healthy bacteria lactobacillus that grows during the sourdough fermentation process.
“[The] tradition of fermenting flour with sourdough breaks down the peptides in gluten that give people trouble,” Pollan says, noting that commercial brands, with their sped-up processes and artificial additives, don’t make bread like we used to.
Consider that, for hundreds of years, making bread was a slow and simple process of leaving the dough of water and whole wheat flour to sit and ferment. The baker then kneaded the dough to combine the proteins created through fermentation to form gluten.
Consider, on the other hand, the accelerated, adulterated version of a modern bread maker. Tip Top’s Sourdough rolls, for example, contain the wheat flour and water, sure. They then completely bypass the natural sourdough process by adding baker’s yeast, dried rye sourdough, gluten, iodised salt, soy flour, acidity regulator (262) and vitamins (thiamin, folate).
Additionally, the mechanisation of bread also allows manufacturers to discard easily the nutrient and fibre-dense parts of the wheat kernel – the germ and the bran – to create white flour.
Is it any surprise that people’s guts play up when this is the version of bread we feed our poor bellies?
“Anecdotally, I’ve heard from lots of people that, when they eat properly fermented bread, they can tolerate it,” Pollan says.
Getting properly fermented bread means buying sourdough from a proper baker, not from a big bread company that is trying to cut corners.
It means returning to a more simple way of eating, bypassing the big food corporations that are unlikely to have our best health interests at heart and who are happy to exploit our food fears and fads.
And it means, for the coeliac-free, which is most of us, getting to have our bread and eat it, too.