Against the grain

By Olivia Brooks

Spotting a bag of paprika in the IKEA with the label “Gluten-Free” often garners eye-rolls. It is easy to assume there is no gluten in spices, but the reality is quite different. To prevent clumping during packaging and to extend shelf life, most spices are mixed with wheat flour. It is also common for sausages to contain gluten in their fillers, making it risky for a celiac or those with wheat allergies every time they go out for groceries. Gluten finds its way into products like ketchup as a thickener or as a binder in prescription vitamins. Gluten is under the label “Generally Regarded As Safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so many companies do not list gluten as an ingredient.

Gluten, a protein, is found in wheat, spelt, barley, rye and malts, among other things. Rice flour, corn mill, tapioca flour and teff flour are all alternatives to conventional flours. Those who have never baked gluten-free dishes at first might come across exotic ingredients in recipes. Xanthum gum, though sounding like an ingredient from a Dr. Who episode, is one of the alternative binders for gluten-free products. Without gluten, bread tastes bizarre and lacks the thickness of ordinary breads. For a PB&J sandwich you can be faced with an unrecognizable lump on your plate.

I quickly found out that most people on the gluten-free diet didn’t have a choice. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder and those afflicted can have symptoms including chronic diarrhea, fatigue and, in extreme, undiagnosed situations, organ failure when they consume gluten. Those who have wheat allergies often follow a gluten-free diet as well.

Cross-contamination can be a huge issue. Like most disorders, celiac disease is on a spectrum. Those with more severe afflictions of the condition can be bed-ridden upon ingestion of gluten products, while others may experience a stomach ache. To ensure that restaurants are actually celiac-friendly and not just “gluten-free,” celiacs like Courtney Keen have to investigate. “When I go out I have to contact the manager of a restaurant and say ‘are you gluten-free?’” Keen is a severe celiac who has to avoid cross-contamination. This means avoiding restaurants where pots used to cook regular pasta are the same as those used to cook the gluten-free pasta.

Unfortunately for students, the restaurants in the city that offer celiac-friendly cuisine are in the higher price range. “Basically the more expensive you go the better chances you’ll have because they will make something for you,” says Keen of restaurants. She points out that Chop Steakhouse or Halo Seafood Bar can accommodate a celiac diet but are not in a realistic price range for students. Places likes Fiores, Chianti’s and Joey Tomatoes do offer a selection of gluten-free dishes but they too are expensive. For gluten-free options at most restaurants, a celiac is looking at an extra $3 tacked onto their bill. Although $3 doesn’t seem like much it adds up quickly. There is also a stigma that comes with ordering gluten-free at restaurants. Celiacs can come across as picky eaters, and with the absorption of the gluten-free diet as a fad-diet, celiacs face judgement from their servers. “The first couple of years that I was diagnosed I didn’t go out to eat because it felt like I was being judged,” confessed Kathleen Collier, an employee of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association.

Recently, however, conventional supermarkets like Safeway and Superstore have been stocking their shelves with gluten-free products because of raised awareness around the limitations of celiac disease. “They’re not the most extensive aisles, but they are there,” comments Keen.

Because of increased screening in the medical community, the awareness of celiac disease is on the rise. Along with this also came the side effect of marketing the gluten-free diet as a way to lose weight. There is controversy around completely eliminating gluten from your diet. Deficiencies in iron and fibre, found in high quantities in gluten products, are common for those who eradicate the protein from their diet. Celiacs and individuals with wheat-allergies need to take extra precautions when eliminating gluten from their diet. Finding foods high in iron, fibre and calcium can help curb deficiencies. University of Calgary professor and registered dietitian Dr. Raylene Reimer recommends those with dietary restrictions prioritize seeing a registered dietitian since deficiencies are common. Students who have celiac disease are at a disadvantage as there are few of options on campus for them and the gluten-free foods that are offered are not celiac friendly because of the cross-contamination. The resources on campus for those with celiac disease are limited to seeing a registered dietitian at the university’s Wellness Centre. Diagnosed celiacs suffering financially are able to claim the dietitian costs back on their tax return, which director of marketing for Planet Foods Shelly Mercier sees as reasonable because “there is no medical treatment for [celiac disease] — the only treatment is to avoid the gluten.” Celiac sufferer Keen, however, finds faults in the system: you have to be a diagnosed celiac to claim the benefits. Undiagnosed individuals who cannot consume gluten products without getting sick are passed over.

Thankfully, those who are cannot consume gluten have resources like the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association and Planet Foods to assist them once diagnosed. Planet Foods is a Western Canadian foods distributor and its mandate is to bring healthy and nutritious food to the mainstream consumer. “We work very closely to our products, working with the local celiac chapter and with all our suppliers,” said director of marketing Mercier. Organizations like Planet Foods offer alternatives to conventional supermarkets and ensure consumers their foods are actually gluten-free. The Calgary chapter of the CCA also ensures that information is readily available for those with celiac disease. “We send out new member package information,” said employee Collier. The organization also has a newsletter that includes recommendations of restaurants by other celiacs in the community. According to Collier, the majority of university students do not approach them and because many health care plans don’t cover the expense of going to see a registered dietitian there is a community of students who are not getting the information they need to eat healthy.

Outside of medical conditions, I was hard-pressed to find individuals who could attest to the health benefits of a gluten-free diet. Then I came across Dr. William Davis, cardiologist and author of the blog Wheat Belly who theorizes the modification of flour in the past 50 years is directly linked to high obesity rates and is making us sick. Davis’s blog updates with anecdotes about individuals who have become healthier by removing wheat from their diet as well as articles on the detrimental effects of wheat. On his blog, Davis explains, “Over 80 per cent of the people I meet today are pre-diabetic or diabetic. [. . .] With few exceptions, foods made of wheat flour raise blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods.” Davis continues, explaining that whole grains contain “more than table sugar, more than a Snickers bar. Organic, multigrain, sprouted — it makes no difference.”

Mercier argued that it was not wheat itself that is unhealthy for the population but how we process the wheat. “[The] process doesn’t leave it [wheat] in very digestible states for us,” states Mercier. “Other grains have to be soaked. Grains in stores don’t take those steps to cut costs but because of the lack of proper processing, the nutrients and vitamins cannot be absorbed.” Mercier also pointed out that due to mass agriculture we no longer have the variety we used to have with our grain. The hybridized and genetically modified grains have created an over-abundance of wheat in our diet when we should be getting a larger variety. “Just like corn in the U.S., in Canada wheat is in everything,” she explained.

My attempt to be gluten-free failed within the first day. I made a stir-fry with rice noodles and vegetables but used soy sauce in the recipe. As it turns out, most conventional sauces contain gluten, including soy sauce. I became paranoid about what foods to consume. They could potentially contain gluten but have no indication in their nutritional information. I decided to stick to basic ingredients, but that didn’t mean my meals were bland. I experienced ingredients and dishes that are not normal staples to the average Canadian diet. I avoided most of the gluten-free aisles at the stores since they were costly. Finding bulk foods that are gluten-free was more cost-effective in the end. Bulk lentils, chickpeas and quinoa were my staples throughout the week. Even after reading labels I was never 100 per cent sure of the contents of my ingredients, so all I could do was hope that I was being faithful to the diet’s restrictions.

As a vegan, I related to the community of celiacs. I know that when going to restaurants you have to be assertive with your servers. Sometimes the dishes may indicate vegetarian but are served with chicken stock. In the last three years I can’t count the times I received scoffs from servers because I am a “picky eater” for asking a meal to be made vegan-friendly, and still have it come to me with cheese on it. In the end, removing gluten from my diet made me realize how disadvantaged those who are afflicted with wheat allergies or celiac disease are. I was able to return to eating bread at the end of this trial while people like Keen, Mercier and Collier still had to navigate through our gluten-saturated aisles to find non-contaminated foods. But a defeatist attitude about gluten-free options is unnecessary.

“It’s becoming easier,” states Keen. “I mean, it’s going to take time. I have relatives in southern California who say that every restaurant has gluten-free options so eventually it will come to Calgary. It’s getting better than it was five years ago, better than it was 20 years ago.” For example, quinoa is an alternative grain that has become mainstream. As a result of this popularity, there are more celiac-friendly options available at conventional supermarkets.

Finishing these three diets solidified my belief that individuals should be conscious of what they are consuming, whether it is due to health, medical or environmental concerns. Resources are available, even if they are limited. Although it is easy to excuse a poor diet when we do not see the effects of our deficiencies and penchant for refined products, consumers need to start making informed decisions if they do not want to suffer from chronic conditions down the road. Our values are reflected in what we consume and purchase. If we want to have a strong, healthy and sustainable community, we need to start with our basic necessities.

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