The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

More Reasons To Get Off The Gluten-Free Bandwagon

No Medically Or Scientifically Sound Reason To Avoid Gluten

I've never been a dietary faddist. When the cholesterol bandwagon rolled through town, I kept right on eating eggs. When everybody started touting the health benefits of margarine over butter, I continued to slather on the real dairy product. When carbohydrates were being crucified, I baked bread and made pasta. When it seemed that every package in the supermarket sported a “fat-free” or “low-fat” or “reduced fat” label, I ignored them all in favor of real “full fat” food. And in every instance, I've been proven right. Modern food science has been issuing apologies for past mistakes at a furious rate lately, exonerating eggs and butter and carbs and fat and lots of other previously demonized and denigrated substances. Is it too much to hope that maybe it's finally gluten's turn?

Actually, science doesn't really have a lot for which to apologize in the current gluten fad. Few if any reputable scientific studies have ever pointed fingers at gluten as a culprit in any dietary or digestive disorder other than the legitimate case of celiac disease. No, we owe those honors to fad-mongering celebrity types. I honestly don't know what's wrong with our culture that we willingly accept the opinionated pronouncements of airheaded, vacuous, blinkered and benighted music, movie, and/or television “stars” over the studied and documented facts presented by doctors, scientists, and other experts. Line up a hundred people with lots of letters after their names on one side of a room and put somebody like Oprah on the other side, and guess who the great majority of sheeple will choose to believe. It's unbelievable. But there it is.

Aiding and abetting these ridiculous celebrity shenanigans are the enablers in the media who keep ginning up the publicity because it's great feature fodder for slow news days. And then factor in the opportunistic advertising agencies who all know a good marketable gimmick when they see one. I'll tell you right now, ingesting gluten does not make me sick. What makes me sick is seeing the words “gluten free” screaming at me from every package in every aisle of every supermarket in America. I get especially ill when I see it tacked on to products that, by their very nature, are physically, chemically, scientifically incapable of actually ever containing gluten in the first place. I saw something the other day that almost made me pass out: I picked up a bottle of “gluten-free” water! Things are labeled that way just to be part of the fad.

You know what a “fad” is? Here's what the dictionary says: “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object's qualities; a craze.” Yep. That about sums it up.

It is said that when Clark Gable took off his shirt onscreen and revealed that he was not wearing an undershirt, undershirt sales plummeted. Why? Blame it on the cult of celebrity. Everybody wants to be like somebody famous. So somebody famous says, “I stopped eating gluten and I lost a hundred pounds overnight. I feel so much better, my sex life is fantastic, and darn if I'm not taller, too!” Blammo! Celebrity cultists in their millions start vilifying a perfectly good, perfectly innocent naturally occurring protein. There's no science behind it. Just uninformed idiots with a platform and a gullible audience. The perverse logic, such as it is, seems to be, “well, they're on TV so they must be smarter than I am.” And if you're an easily led person prone to the influence of the siren song of celebrity, if Dr. Oz tells you that you can keep your hair by rubbing horse manure on your head, you're gonna go out and find a stable.

H.L. Mencken is (mis)quoted as saying, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” And I swear they must have that engraved on a plaque somewhere in every ad agency in the United States. If tomorrow some celebrity goofball were to stand up in front of a camera and aver that pig snouts were the answer to all your health and wellness issues, I promise you it would be about two weeks before every product in every store would feature a picture of a pig and the words “made with real pig snouts” on the package. If you believe for one skinny second that ConAgra and Kraft and Pepsico and the like are concerned about your health and well being when they slap “gluten-free” on everything from apples to zwieback, you are seriously deluded. Big Food and its marketing machinery can play a food fad like a flute and they just sit back and watch the bucks inflate their coffers as the idiots dance to their tune.

I'm not going to go into a lengthy discussion of gluten here. Simply put, gluten is a general name for certain proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley, proteins that help foods maintain their shape and structure by acting as a sort of natural glue. There is nothing intrinsically or inherently “unhealthy,” “bad”, or “evil” about gluten. And unless you have a specific disorder called celiac disease, a condition wherein the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine, there is no medically or scientifically sound reason to avoid the substance.

“Well, I don't have celiac, but I'm gluten intolerant.” No, you're probably not. Because research indicates there ain't no such thing. A study conducted by the Department of Gastroenterology, Eastern Health Clinical School, Monash University, Box Hill, Victoria, Australia concluded: “In a placebo-controlled, cross-over rechallenge study, we found no evidence of specific or dose-dependent effects of gluten in patients with NCGS [non-celiac gluten sensitivity] placed diets low in FODMAPs [fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols].” In non-scientific terms, it's all in your head.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Peter Gibson, says the real reason many people who have eliminated gluten from their diets claim to feel better or sexier or healthier or whatever is simply because they've changed their diets. People hear about “going gluten-free” from some talking head or another and they go out and start buying fresh vegetables. They stop eating processed crap and they just start cooking and eating a lot better in general. So while it may seem on the surface that cutting out the gluten is what helped them lose the weight, or cleared up their complexion, or made them taller, or whatever the ridiculous claim might be, in reality, as Gibson says, “Blaming the gluten is easy, but you could point to about a hundred things they're doing better.”

Imagine a man standing in a pouring rain getting soaking wet. Another man comes along and hands him an umbrella and a packet of magic powder. The second man tells the first that he will stay dry if he raises the umbrella and stands under it while throwing the magic powder into the air. The first man does as he is instructed, and upon finding himself staying dry as promised, he proceeds to go out and tell everyone he knows about the wondrous magic powder. Far-fetched? No more so than the miraculous claims of the “gluten-free” crowd. When it comes to dietary health and wellness, there are no magic powders. That's a hard-sell in this day and age, because nobody likes to think that all the alleged benefits they reap from listening to some celebrity spokesperson about the glories of going gluten-free might just be psychological.

Here's some more food for thought: the “gluten-free” craze may actually be damaging to your health. It's a basic premise of food science that everything is a trade off. When you make something “low fat” or “sugar free,” you take something out of a food that you have to replace with something else. Often that something is an artificially, chemically produced additive that is far worse for you than the original natural substance ever was. Or it could be something like salt. Take a gander at the label of your favorite “fat-free” snack. Yeah, they took out the fat, alright, but they doubled down on the sodium to make up the flavor difference. Same thing happens with “gluten-free” products. They've got to replace the gluten with something else for texture or taste. According to research conducted by places like Columbia University Medical Center, many gluten-free products contain higher amounts of fat and sugar and lack fiber, protein, and a lot of nutrients such as folate, iron, and B vitamins. That leaves us with a whole line of products on grocery store shelves that have less fiber, protein, and vitamins and more sugar and sodium in their gluten-free formulations than they have in their supposedly less healthy ones.

This is especially problematic for kids. Okay, moms. Maybe it's alright for you to risk your health based on the wisdom of some “personality” who couldn't even qualify for the low “star” standards of “Dancing With The Stars”. But does that mean you have the right to inflict your gullibility on your growing and developing children? Why don't you try getting your health advice from the Journal of the American Medical Association rather than from People Magazine? Or maybe you could check out the Journal of Pediatrics, where it was recently published that “increased fat and calorie intake have been identified in individuals after a GFD [gluten-free diet]. Obesity, overweight, and new-onset insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome have been identified after initiation of a GFD.”

Here's the science, not the gossip: for people who don't have a medical condition like celiac disease, there are no proven health benefits to a “gluten-free” diet. Period. Furthermore, without proper nutritional guidance, cutting out foods with gluten can lead to nutritional deficiencies and increased fat and calorie intake, especially among children.

I'm not going to reach everybody with this message. I'm a realist and I understand that many of the rabid gluten-free dieters out there will say something along the lines of, “Stuff it, bozo. I know what I feel so you can just take your opinion and sit on it.” To them I say, “more power to you.” To everybody else I would plead stop the craziness and stop listening to the crazies. Get off the bandwagon and into the kitchen. Get rid of the packaged chemistry sets that masquerade as processed foods and start cooking with fresh, natural ingredients. Practice balance and moderation in your diet and before you know it you'll lose weight, feel better, be sexier, have clearer skin, keep your hair, make more money, and maybe even be taller. Who knows? It won't be a matter of being gluten-free or fat-free or carb-free or anything else that requires being brain-free. It's just common sense, a commodity unfortunately uncommon among the senseless followers of celebrity fads.

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