Did you know that prior to the 1930s people routinely died from Celiac disease? Going gluten-free can save lives and is a beautiful thing if your health is negatively impacted by eating it.
During the 1930s Dr. Sidney Haas noticed that babies and children with Celiac who didn't eat carbohydrates or fats and ate a medically formulated banana diet improved, and lived! The cure was erroneously attributed to the banana and not the absence of gluten. It wasn't until World War II that due to food shortages, a pediatrician in the Netherlands, K.W. Dicke, observed that children with Celiac who didn't consume grains showed vast improvement. That was the beginning of understanding that for some, gluten should be eliminated from the diet.
I eat gluten-free and have been doing since the early 2000s and had been wheat free since the 1990s. I suffered from chronic stomach pain in grade and high school and was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome in my 20s. It wasn't until I did some research and eliminated gluten-containing products from my diet, namely wheat, barley and rye that my symptoms stopped. My doctor's advice to me was that if I felt better when I wasn't consuming gluten-containing products there was no reason to change what I was doing. She offered a Celiac test but explained that I'd have to eat gluten containing products for up to a month followed by a biopsy of my small intestine. I declined and decided to stick with what was working.
"Gluten-free" has become a very charged but also profitable issue with some jumping either on the bully bandwagon or the "let's capitalize on this!" frenzy. The internet is filthy with articles, memes and books equating going gluten-free with idiocy or being mindlessly faddish at best. (This video is actually hilarious.) Of course that may be true for some! But not for all. In my case, because I write about eating retro and share vintage recipes with substitutes for gluten I have, on occasion, received the side-eye from some people because "they ate gluten" back then.
What they really mean is that Celiac and gluten-sensitivity weren't talked about in the 1950s like they are today.
As I wrote in my book American Women Didn't Get Fat in the 1950s:
Additionally, while gluten-free chic wasn’t a 50s phenomenon, Celiac disease and other food allergies were most certainly around in the 50s so that gluten-free or any other allergen-free eating can absolutely be “retro.” It would be dangerous to ignore your own individual health issues to emulate something for the sake of historical reenactment.
On the other side is the ever-expanding offering of highly processed gluten-free products that, nutritionally speaking, are devoid of fiber and loaded with sugar, creepy ingredients and refined carbs. But ultimately who cares what other people think! You need to eat what's best for you and you don't need to run it by the Internet for approval.
I want to address a couple of misguided beliefs about going gluten-free:
Going gluten-free means you will lose weight and what you do eat is healthy:
False. Have you seen some of the processed gluten-free products out there? As I mentioned above, the gluten is gone but refined sugars and unhealthy substitutes have taken its place. Also, some very calorie-dense foods are naturally gluten-free. But the real proof is that I was overweight while eating gluten-free!
It's expensive to eat gluten-free:
False. If you rely on processed ready-made foods then yes, it can be. Many foods such as inexpensive, basic staples like potatoes are naturally gluten-free.
Here's what going gluten-free while eating retro (and staying slim!) means to me:
I bake more. When I do have bread I either bake my own using a blend of natural flours or purchase a loaf from the local health food grocer that is minimally processed and not loaded with refined sweeteners and fillers. I also bake my own desserts, cookies and sweet breads incorporating whole grain flours.
I eat a wider variety of food. I discovered and now enjoy flours I wouldn't have originally used as staples.
I enjoy gluten-free flours that were also readily available in the 1950s and earlier. Corn meal, buckwheat flour, tapioca and even rice flour are mentioned in my old recipes. During World War One there was a wheat shortage and recipes contained potato and other non-gluten flours. Vintage ads also confirm their presence in the general marketplace.
What I don't use in gluten-free cooking:
Currently white and sometimes brown rice flours comprise the bulk of gluten-free flour mixes and processed products like pastas, breads and other baked goods. It's everywhere! Rice is a healthy, wholesome food, so why wouldn't I use rice flour? Besides not liking the gritty texture and aftertaste, it's high in inorganic arsenic content compared to other foods. Rice absorbs pollution more than other crops, and it doesn't matter if it's grown organically. It's in the water. The FDA states: "Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. The FDA is currently examining these and other long-term effects."
Fermented, dead bacteria gum
Even if you aren't eating gluten-free baked goods made from commercial blends, you may be eating it on a regular basis because it's been around commercially since the 1960s. It's called Xanthan Gum and you've probably seen it listed on ingredients for many food products. It's nearly ubiquitous in processed gluten-free foods. Xanthan gum is produced by fermenting bacteria feeding on sugar which creates a gooey substance that's "purified" before being dried and milled into a powder. The FDA states it's safe when processed according to their specifications, but this New York Times article states that in "May 2011, the F.D.A. inspected the plants that make SimplyThick and found violations at one in Stone Mountain, Ga., including a failure to 'thermally process' the product to destroy bacteria of a 'public health significance.'" Xanthan is also "a highly efficient laxative agent causing significant increases in stool output, frequency of defecation and flatulence."
Safe or not, I just don't want to join the the gluten-free bacteria gum party.
Despite the current awareness and surplus of gluten-free products, Celiac still remains an under-diagnosed condition.
Eating "scientifically" is very retro but most importantly we all need to eat safely!