Fear rarely leads to rational discussions. If not driven by fear, we often adopt unusual diets, perhaps out of an attempt to control our lives in a confusing world. Regardless of the root cause, our world has people who take advantage of either case. Consumer Reports’ January 2015 article The Truth About Gluten does a good job exposing those who profit from some unfounded suspicions about gluten.
Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, barley and rye. It’s what makes dough elastic; it can trap carbon dioxide and make dough rise; when absorbing the right amount of hot water, a gluten network also traps swelling starch granules, creating the al dente texture of perfectly cooked pasta.
But to the 1% of the population who suffer from caeliac disease, gluten must genuinely be avoided at all costs. An enzyme modifies gluten components or similar molecules found in foods and then the immune system attacks the villi of the small intestine, interfering with nutrient absorption.
It’s unlikely that gluten is fully tolerated by the other 99% of the population, but because gluten-free diets have become a fad and ripe for commercial exploitation, it’s extremely likely that many non-caeliacs avoiding gluten are being deceived. For example, even beauty products carry non-gluten labels, and just as 7up fed on a caffeine-fear decades ago—promoting itself as caffeine-free when it never contained the compound—sales of potato-chips disingenuously labelled as “gluten-free” (they have always been naturally free of gluten) have soared by 456% between 2012 and 2014. Compared to new cereals for people, twice as many gluten-free pet foods were launched in 2014.
Here are more Consumer Reports findings:
(1) Gluten does add pleasant texture and taste to foods. To compensate, manufacturers add more sugar and even fat to gluten-free foods.
(2) Gluten-free foods are more expensive than their counterparts.
(3) According to an EPA 2009-10 study, on average 17% of a person’s dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, comes from rice (brown rice from Texas being the most contaminated). Gluten-free foods often use rice as a substitute for wheat. As a result gluten-free diets unnecessarily expose many people to more arsenic. How much? Well, most rice is in the 2 to 9 micrograms per 45 g serving ( 2 to 9ug/0.045 kg = 44 to 200 ppb or parts per billion) which is a much higher concentration than the legal limit of arsenic in drinking water at 10 ppb). The rice industry of course plays the “safe-level” card, acting as if arsenic is the only carcinogen in the environment.
There are other environmental sources of arsenic aside from water and rice. Garden vegetables can contain elevated levels of arsenic if they’re grown next to CCA-treated wood, which was sold before 2004. A key study leading to the ban of such wood treatment was conducted by David Stillwell. What I find interesting from a chemical point of view is that it seemed initially that CCA would not leach out when the product was first introduced into the market. The wood had originally been tested with tap water. But in the field, the treated wood was exposed to acidic precipitation, and at a lower pH, the arsenic compounds were more soluble. As I revealed in a University of Waterloo publication, I used a modified Gutzeit test to convince myself that this is indeed true. How much arsenic was found in food also depended on the part of the plant. Roots and tubers concentrated the most, so carrots generally contained more than tomatoes, all other variables being equal. Of course, other soil components also played a role along with how much stain was applied to the treated wood. Quality stains helped prevent leaching of arsenic.