Ever since I changed to a restrictive, but healthy, diet to address Chronic Fatigue syndrome, over 25 years ago, I have prided myself on continuing to eat organic and healthy food. Then, two years ago, after a time of huge stress, I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, an auto-immune disorder where sufferers react to gluten in foods, even in the smallest amounts. The test result astounded me. I am a nutritional therapist and eat a healthy diet so how did that happen! There was a strong sense of irony as I had recommended avoiding gluten containing wheat to lots of clients and now it was going to be off limits to me too – for ever.
The change to a gf diet was actually not too difficult for me as I didn’t eat wheat-laden junk food, or cakes and biscuits regularly – or so I thought. However what I didn’t realise at the beginning, is just how pervasive and invasive gluten is in our home, our food, and our environment.
Not only do Coeliacs have to exclude all wheat containing products like the obvious bread, pastry, biscuits and cakes, but also foods with a little wheat in them which includes less obvious things such as burgers and meat balls, sausages, black pudding, ham with a breadcrumb crust, sauces, taramasalata, guacamole, crab pate and many others. My husband has become very used to hearing ‘Why on earth do they put wheat in that!” Very often wheat is not a necessary ingredient, just a filler and there are lots of alternatives.
When one takes out other gluten containing foods like barley, rye, couscous, bulgar wheat, and oats plus foods containing extracts from them, another huge batch of foods has to be excluded. Some coeliacs can tolerate gf oats but its best to avoid them as they still contain a form of gluten though different from wheat gluten. Spirit vinegar and malt vinegar and malted products are out too as they are made from barley, and this includes most chutneys and many sauces. And then there is wheat in cosmetics such as when vitamin E or wheat germ oil is used, and I can testify that it does cause a reaction.
So what does one eat? Well obviously meat, fish, eggs, veg, fruit nuts and seeds. Ah, but not necessarily. If you read the small print on packets you can find that it says ‘may contain gluten’ or packed in an environment where gluten containing products are packaged”. Coeliacs are so sensitive that this immediately cuts out another large number of products.
When I got my diagnosis I thought I could continue to eat mostly organic food, often bought from the health food shop. But I was wrong. The only uncontaminated grains and pulses sold by my health food shop are – quinoa and brown rice flakes. I cannot buy rice, millet, nuts, seeds, or lentils because their supplier buys these products from China, presumably where they are grown, but all packaged in the same factory that handles wheat flour. (I am not sure that I would trust a Chinese organic certification label in any case).
This makes trying to have a healthy organic diet very difficult though I have found that Waitrose’s range of organic foods is not contaminated, and is presumably grown in other countries than China. But Waitrose does not offer a full range of the usual Health Foods.
The whole experience of being a Nutritional Therapist with Coeliac Disorder has made me realise just how pervasive wheat is in normal diets. It is probably present in around 80% of foods that people routinely eat. Medical authorities wonder at the explosion of wheat allergies and autoimmune disease, and at the huge growth in the demand for gf food. Human digestion has not yet evolved to eat a diet containing the modern form of gluten, as wheat is amongst the most highly selectively bred foods in farming, and in any case, gluten is a very difficult protein to digest, which is why our ancestors allowed it to ferment with yeasts to help it break down. It would seem that we are being set up, albeit by accident, to suffer from wheat allergies and intolerances.
Most Nutritional Therapists will ask their clients to cut down or exclude wheat from their diet when giving health advice. From a naturopathic perspective, wheat is considered suppressive to liver metabolism, pro-inflammatory and with negative effects on the immune system. It is difficult to recover from ill-health while essential organ systems are operating below par. A colleague has said that she has observed that patients don’t make any progress unless they stop having wheat (and dairy which has similar problems).
Today, walking round the health food shop in search of brown rice flakes, it occurred to me that the whole ethos of the health food industry is based on eating wholemeal wheat.
There are so many products made with it and which take centre stage that it is as if the industry has forgotten that this is just one grain amongst many, and that it isn’t necessarily healthy even if it is organic and wholegrain. A loaf of home-made organic bread has become synomynous of the most healthy food one can eat. And yet it isn’t – not by a long way.
The acceptance of wholewheat as a healthy food means that a blind eye is being turned to its insidious use in a huge range of health food products. Many people won’t realise that they are consuming so much of such an unhelpful food, thinking that they are eating a healthy diet because they buy their food from a Health Food Shop.
It is about time the health food industry caught up with its customers and modern science, to sell what customers are increasingly demanding – and it isn’t wheat products. The upsurge of clean eating, detox diets and food sensitivities shows there is a demand to reshape what they offer. It’s time to ditch the wheat.