I love you, Jimmy Kimmel, but you’re wrong on this one. Gluten sensitivity and intolerance is real, even for those not diagnosed with celiac disease.
I have it. Hundreds of people I have worked with over the past five years have it. Some of our employees at Smart Flour Foods have it. This year alone, 18 million Americans will identify with gluten-related allergies.1 However, recent articles, discussions and even comedy shows are leading people to believe that gluten intolerance outside of celiac disease may not be real, and that choosing a gluten-free diet could be detrimental to a person’s overall health.
This issue is of personal importance to me. In 2011, I left a successful career in the technology industry and joined the food business when I acquired Smart Flour Foods, a small producer of gluten-free baked goods. I took this step to pursue a new passion: bringing great-tasting and nutritious gluten-free foods to all those who avoid eating gluten. This choice, in turn, came after I somewhat unexpectedly discovered my own gluten intolerance in 2009.
In the interest of addressing a wide range of discomforts including back pain, nasal congestion, allergies, sleep issues, reduced energy levels and weight gain, I completed a managed cleanse that eliminated a wide variety of food components from my diet and then slowly added them back. Through that process, I found that eliminating gluten, dairy and citrus immediately improved all of my problem areas. Nearly five years later, I have resumed consuming dairy and citrus in limited quantities, but I strictly avoid gluten, and I still enjoy a vast majority of health benefits. For example, I’ve kept off a majority of the weight (20 pounds), I still sleep better, my allergy symptoms are significantly reduced, I don’t experience the seasonal sinus infections that I had come to accept as inevitable, and my migraines are all but gone. Hundreds of people that I routinely talk to at tradeshows and conferences around the country echo my experience. Countless others, including several of our employees, must avoid gluten to prevent debilitating gastrointestinal distress.
While medical science may not yet be able to tell us exactly why these issues occur, it is important to note that studies have found some links. The best example may be a 2010 Mayo Clinic study that compared current blood samples to those belonging to members of the Air Force, preserved from the 1950s. The rate of gluten antibodies (a way to test for celiac disease) in the current samples was 3.5 times higher than in the older ones!2 The study clearly demonstrated that the incidence of celiac disease is much higher than it was just 70 years ago. This study also clearly indicates that the overall level of gluten related issues has increased dramatically, which could have implications for non-celiac gluten intolerance as well. In 2013, The National Institutes of Health found a link between non-celiac gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.3 Furthermore, many people avoid the most definitive medical test for celiac disease because it requires an invasive small intestine biopsy. It is therefore likely that celiac disease is under-diagnosed, potentially increasing the number of people who consider themselves gluten intolerant but not necessarily celiac.
Net-net, non-celiac gluten intolerance is not fully understood as of yet, and I look forward to more research on the issue. But the issue of non-celiac gluten intolerance is real in my experience.
With regards to the issue of nutrition in a gluten-free diet, eliminating foods that contain gluten can take away important nutritional elements, but those can be made up by eating a well-rounded diet including fruits and vegetables, something that makes good nutritional sense for anyone. When considering prepared gluten-free options, some do offer more nutrition than others. At Smart Flour Foods, we base our products on the ancient grains sorghum, amaranth and teff, which provide more fiber, vitamins and minerals than most other gluten-free options and are often similar to their conventional wheat-based counterparts. Our products also feature natural ingredients and minimal processing, further adding to their overall health profile.
I’ll sum it up this way: I know from experience that non-celiac gluten intolerance is real. I know that cutting gluten will improve the lives of those who suffer from it. And maybe most importantly, I want gluten intolerant people, celiac or otherwise, to love their food as much as everyone else does.
Charlie Pace is President and CEO of Smart Flour Foods, a producer of gluten-free baked goods, available in a wide variety of natural and specialty stores, including many Whole Foods Markets, and suffers from gluten intolerance
Posted in WholeFoods Magazine, September 15, 2014