Gluten is certainly getting more than it’s share of fame these days, with a sharp increase in the number of people claiming sensitivity to the protein found in wheat and other grains. True believers claim cutting out wheat (and more specifically gluten) is responsible for everything from losing belly fat to quieting a full range of gastrointestinal distress. The FDA finally established standards for labeling products “gluten free” while sales continue to explode. Comics are enjoying all the commotion, especially as consumers become increasingly more paranoid about their food. Scientists claim it can’t be the wheat, but I am not so sure.
I already blame the USDA farm policy for distorting the cost of food, a prime factor contributing to economic based obesity. Calorie for calorie, the cheapest food in our current food supply is refined starch, sugar, and fat. No surprise that these are the exact food ingredients that make it easy for too many people to preferentially store fat instead of burning it for fuel. Wheat subsidies are second only to feed grains in the current USDA budget. I am increasingly worried that our distorted and adulterated food supply is driving increasing food intolerance, allergies, and other disease.
THE DOSE MAKES THE POISON
Food sensitivities are mostly dose related, and Americans consume a very high dose of wheat. Many products are produced from wheat and other grains that contain gluten. Breads, crackers, pasta, pastries and other desserts are often wheat based. Wheat flour and other derivatives are used to make sauces, marinades, salad dressings and other seasonings. Wheat is our food staple and Americans have celebrated the bread basket for decades.
I appreciate that a food scientist at the USDA may say, it’s not the wheat. He may be too close to the chemistry to pull back and think about the food supply. Cultivars continue to be produced that yield a higher protein content because those grains demand a higher price on the commodity market. There are no commercially available GMO grains, but plant breeders have been successful deriving a higher protein content by more traditional methods. In addition, conventional farming adds plenty of NPK fertilizers to their depleted fields. All that extra nitrogen contributes to a higher protein yield, too.
ADDED GLUTEN EVERYWHERE
USDA actively promotes efforts to “maximize wheat utilization, with one document I found dating back to 1969. Food technologists (and the corporations that employ them) will continue to take advantage of the unique properties of wheat protein for one basic reason. It’s cheap. USDA farm policy continues to subsidize wheat, creating an incentive for food processors and manufacturers everywhere opportunistically use them and save a few pennies. The USDA reports that 300 pounds of gluten is extracted from 2 billion tons of wheat each year and used as a additive in everything from food coatings and films to animal feed.
HAS FOOD TECHNOLOGY REACHED A TIPPING POINT?
I figured out that I don’t handle excessive carbohydrate in my diet years ago. Even though I don’t tolerate much carbohydrate in my diet, I know I metabolize most beans, legumes, tubers and some grains better than others. It is only wheat based products that cause my esophagus to swell and my chest to hurt–but not every product. I recently started experimenting with baking gluten free products myself, like the biscuits I made just yesterday morning. Ok texture, but taste and fragrance less inviting. My son said his biscuit smelled like cornmeal crusted fried trout. I could almost smell it, too. Still, not a bad product and I bet it is absolutely delicious for many who doesn’t tolerate gluten at all.
Comics and trolls can make all the fun they want of what they see as a rich person’s manufactured epidemic–but the joke may be on them. Dose always makes the poison. Food technology wields a double edge sword. All the inventive ways food manufacturers have figured out to maximize wheat utilization may be have reached a tipping point. I wonder if gluten intolerance is a manufactured epidemic of food technology’s own making.