Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 3

As discussed in previous newsletters, gluten-containing foods such as wheat or rye bread can be safely consumed by gluten-sensitive people if made with whole grain flour and leavened with sourdough starter instead of with baker’s yeast.  However, ff you have any type of sensitivity to gluten, it’s best to first avoid it entirely for two weeks to a month or more, depending on how severe your reaction normally is and how long you have had a noticeable reaction. Avoiding gluten gives your body time to completely detoxify from it. It also helps reduce your body’s sensitivity, some of which may purely be due to overexposure to gluten. While you are avoiding gluten-containing grains, get your complex, starchy carbohydrates from gluten-free grains such as brown rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, corn and amaranth, and from potatoes. All of the grains can typically be found in bulk at your local health food store.

After abstaining from gluten for a few weeks, try reintroducing it in the form of a small amount of 100% sourdough whole wheat bread. Some large supermarkets, such as Whole Foods or Wegman’s, carry whole wheat sourdough, as do most health food stores, but you may need or desire to make it yourself, which takes a little time to learn, but is a very rewarding and enjoyable skill to have mastered. After eating a small amount of sourdough bread, wait a day or two to see if you have any reaction. If you do, you may need to give yourself a few more days or weeks to let your body finish detoxifying. In the meantime, continue with the gluten-free whole grains, but try to limit processed, prepackaged gluten-free foods, as they may delay detoxification due to their own gluten-imitating ingredients.

Once you can eat a small amount of whole wheat sourdough without difficulty, gradually increase your intake. Your body, having had a sufficient “break” from conventional bread, pasta, baked goods, and processed foods containing dextrin (aka gluten), will be able to tolerate daily sourdough bread just as the bodies of your ancestors did. In fact, you should even be able (eventually) to also tolerate non-sourdough whole grain breads and pastas, in moderate amounts, but too much too soon may inflame your immune system again. Therefore, it is important to continue to make whole grain sourdough bread, and sourdough baked goods in general, the majority of your gluten intake. The right balance depends on the individual, and the only way to find out exactly is to test yourself by adjusting your diet accordingly.

Making your own sourdough may sound complicated, but once you have mastered the technique, it does not require a lot of effort, and your home-baked sourdough bread will be the most satisfying, best-tasting bread you’ve ever had. Instructions for making sourdough starter and sourdough bread can be found on many websites. If you’d like our recipe, just send me an email, and I will forward you our instructions while answering any questions you may have. For anyone with gluten sensitivity, I hope this series of articles opens up a new world of possibilities for you. Having grown up with a wheat allergy myself, I find that sourdough gives me the opportunity to enjoy gluten-containing bread just as much as everyone else (if not more), which is the way it’s meant to be.

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 2

As discussed in last week’s article, a growing number of people are being diagnosed with celiac disease, a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. There appears to be a genetic predisposition to celiac, but unexpectedly, those most susceptible are descended from European and Caucasian ancestors – the very same people who made gluten-containing grains a staple of their diet, usually in the form of bread. Why would people whose ancestors could tolerate gluten just fine be unable to tolerate it today? This phenomenon has much in common with the history of corn, which traditionally provided sufficient sustenance to Mesoamericans but resulted in nutrient deficiencies among Western Europeans when it was brought over by Columbus. In the case of corn, it was the natural processing method used by the Mesoamericans, but forsaken by the Westerners, that made corn digestible. In the case of gluten-containing grains, the problem again comes down to a change in the processing method.

Ever since the beginning of civilization in the ancient Near East, bread has always been the centerpiece of the diet. Traditionally, to make bread, whole grains were ground into whole grain flour, which was then mixed with water to form dough, and leavened, or allowed to rise. The leavening agent was a portion of a “starter,” a small amount of wet dough that had been colonized by microorganisms already naturally present in the air and on the individual grains: a symbiotic blend of Lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeast (the bacteria far outnumbering the yeast).  The yeast would turn the starches in bread into ethanol and carbon dioxide (which enabled the dough to rise) and the bacteria would feed on the yeast’s byproducts, thereby forming sour-tasting lactic acid, which in turn helped protect both the yeast and bacteria from unwelcome organisms such as other forms of bacteria or mold. After sufficient leavening, this “sourdough” bread would be baked. The result was a moderately risen loaf that kept well and was packed full of nutrition. This was the bread that become known as the “staff of life,” and which served as a metaphor for food in general.

Up until the mid-19th century, bread throughout the world was prepared according to this traditional method. However, the new technology that came with the industrial revolution enabled factories to mass-produce bread made with white flour instead of whole wheat, which reduced the nutrient value of the bread. While white flour had previously been a delicacy of the upper class, it now became the standard for all classes, which had a devastating effect on impoverished people who relied on bread as their main source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, advances in science made it possible for bakers to isolate and grow their own strains of yeast, instead of having to rely on wild yeast. With these abundant quantities of yeast, bread products could be made that didn’t rely on bacteria at all for leavening. The result was bread with a sweeter flavor, which, like white bread, appealed to the upper classes, who were already indulging in large quantities of meats that left them craving excessive sweet flavors. When, in the 1850’s, the technology was available to mass-produce this new form of industrial “baker’s yeast,” bread leavened solely with yeast became the new standard, given that baking with it was easier and quicker, it rose more, and didn’t require sourdough starter. Ever since, the standard form of bread that we eat has been white bread leavened with baker’s yeast, due to both its convenience and its immediate gratification.

What does this have to do with gluten and celiac disease? While the transition from whole grain to white flour is part of the problem (due to the loss of nutrients that would otherwise aid digestion of the bread), the main culprit is the transition from sourdough bread to baker’s yeast-leavened bread. The bacteria that used to ferment all our bread just so happens to produce enzymes that help break down gluten proteins. In addition, the lactic acid byproduct weakens the gluten network by increasing the number of positively charged amino acids along the protein chains, and increasing the repulsive forces between chains. A similar process takes place when we soak meat in an acidic marinade to tenderize it: the protein-based tissues break down and the meat becomes more digestible. The gluten in sourdough bread, therefore, is much easier to digest, which explains why our ancestors could tolerate so much bread. True, their bread didn’t rise as much as ours, but they didn’t mind – they tended to eat it with a lot of butter, lard or olive oil, and just a small amount could sustain them for a long time, which reduced the amount of calories they ate overall.

We started turning our backs on sourdough around the year 1850; the first case of celiac was formally diagnosed only a few decades later, in 1887, and the disease has been getting more prevalent since then. To an extent, we are all gluten-sensitive, even if we don’t have readily apparent celiac disease, wheat allergies, or digestive disorders. We’re just not meant to eat large quantities of gluten unless in a form such as sourdough bread. Nevertheless, in the modern world, gluten is everywhere, not just in bread; in fact, it’s extremely difficult to avoid. Fortunately, we don’t need to cut it out completely, or genetically engineer it to be digestible; we just need to go back to eating it in the form that we did, without health issues, for thousands of years. In the next and final installment of this series, I’ll explain how we can change our baking ways to be more in line with traditional methods.

 

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 1

Celiac disease, also referred to as gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, or celiac sprue, is a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. As a side effect of the immune system’s inflammatory response to gluten, intestinal villi are destroyed.  Villi are small, finger-like projections on the intestinal wall that help us to absorb nutrients. Due to the destruction of the villi, celiac disease sufferers (aka celiacs) gradually lose their ability to digest nutrients. Symptoms of the disease include diarrhea, intestinal cramps, bloating, fatigue, excessive weight loss, failure to thrive (in children), allergies, anemia, and general malnutrition. The only known cure is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet.

Celiac was first described in 1887. Over the succeeding decades, it has become more commonly known and better understood. Today, many people are familiar with the concept of a gluten-free diet, and many people with digestive difficulties experiment with the diet to see if it eliminates their symptoms.  In fact, in recent years a whole cottage industry of gluten-free foods has emerged, catering to the needs of those who cannot tolerate gluten, a group whose numbers seem to be growing exponentially, whether due to better diagnosis of the disease, increase in incidence, or both.

Gluten is the type of protein that is contained in the grains wheat, rye, spelt, kamut and barley. Its elastic, sticky nature is what makes these grains ideal for grinding into flour and baking into bread. The strength and elasticity of gluten protein chains enables the bread to maintain its structure as yeast releases gases that cause the bread to rise. Gluten’s thickening and stabilizing properties also make it popular as a food additive, where it can be found in processed foods sometimes under the name dextrin. In addition to being present in virtually all bread products (essentially any food made with the grains named above), gluten can be found in candies, gravies, imitation meats, lunch meats, salad dresses, sauces, soups, and most processed foods in general. A celiac disease sufferer, in order to be symptom-free, must find a way to avoid all these foods while still managing to eat a balanced diet. Gluten is especially difficult to replace when it comes to foods such as bread and pasta that require its properties to maintain their structure.  As such, modern medical research is currently focused on trying to genetically engineer gluten to maintain its properties while not inflaming the immune system in celiacs.

One fact that these researchers have been able to determine is that celiac disease is hereditary. That is to say, our level of sensitivity to gluten tends to be determined by our genes.  Those populations with the highest sensitivity to gluten tend to be northern and western Europeans and Caucasians in general. Interestingly, these are the populations that are most closely associated with historical consumption of gluten-containing grains such as wheat and rye. Since celiac is a relatively recent disease, what must have happened to suddenly make gluten so intolerable to significant percentages of these populations? This is an area of celiac disease research that has regrettably been left under-explored. However, a look back at history of gluten consumption may shed some light. Actually, it’s best to start with an analogy to the history of maize, or corn, consumption.

Corn, along with rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, among others, is one of the gluten-free grains, so it has never been linked to celiac disease. However, corn does pose its own digestive issues. The ratio of the different types of protein in corn is not ideal for our own amino acid balance. Corn can contain mycotoxins, byproducts of mold that are carcinogenic. Finally, corn contains niacin (aka vitamin B3), an essential nutrient, but in a form that is indigestible.  Anyone eating a diet that depended heavily on corn to meet nutritional needs would be at risk for a variety of serious health problems, including the vitamin B3 deficiency (aka pellagra), which, like celiac, can be ultimately fatal if the diet is not changed.

In ancient Mesoamerica, where corn was first cultivated, a process called nixtamalization was developed, in which the corn was soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution made of lime (calcium hydroxide) and ash (potassium hydroxide), then hulled. This process removed the mycotoxins, eliminated the excess protein, and freed up the niacin for absorption. As a result of this natural, time-honored form of processing, the Mesoamericans could rely on corn as a staple of their diet. However, when corn was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and quickly adopted by many due to its high yields, the nixtamalization process was not brought with it. Instead, corn was processed and hulled in mechanical mills. As a consequence, wherever corn became the staple food crop, malnutrition struck.

Today, if any single food has become our staple, it’s wheat, and gluten is clearly even more ubiquitous than wheat. The very people who were able to tolerate it for centuries now appear to be genetically incapable of safely digesting it. Unsurprisingly, the key to the riddle has to do with the change we’ve made from the traditional processing methods of gluten to the modern, just as in the case of the abandonment of corn nixtamalization. Next week’s article will explore the history of gluten processing and describe how, with the right preparation, gluten can be safely consumed – even by celiacs.