Science Fiction: Gluten

Addressing the gluten-free fad with a wheat expert

Welcome to the first ever installment of the Science Fiction column. In this column we will address popular misconceptions about science and consult on-campus experts to debunk them for good!

Spouting scientific facts is always a great way to impress your friends, family, or fellow party-goers, but how sure are you about the validity of your claims? Fear not, we have you covered.

This week’s misconception involves a diet fad that is gaining a lot of momentum: the gluten-free diet. Will giving up bread and wheat make you feel better?

Our misconception is that “wheat and wheat-based food products are destructive to your health and that the elimination of wheat from the diet is a cure.” Harry Sapirstein, associate professor of food science at the University of Manitoba, who has a PhD in cereal chemistry from the U of M, will help shed some light on this popular movement.

“Wheat (as well as rye and barley via their close genetic relationships to wheat), when eaten as a whole grain, is a rich source of dietary fibre, B vitamins, [ . . . ] folate, vitamin E, iron, and many other minerals, as well as phenolic antioxidants and other phytochemicals, which science has shown to be beneficial for health,” Sapirstein told the Manitoban.

Gluten is complex, composed of the proteins gliadins and glutenins. The gluten proteins have unique properties which make them suitable for dough formation and baking.

Celiac disease is a condition in which gluten causes the immune system to damage the small intestine, resulting in poor nutrient absorption. The immune system mistakes gluten for a potentially harmful molecule, and responds with inflammation in the small intestine. The treatment of celiac disease is a gluten-free diet.

“Many individuals believe that cutting wheat and wheat products from their diet is beneficial or even essential for health, despite not having celiac disease or a medically diagnosed gastrointestinal intolerance to wheat or gluten,” said Sapirstein.

“There have always been and always will be fad-seekers wanting easy solutions to very complex diet-related health issues. Anti-gluten or gluten-free is perhaps the most recent of these fads purporting to cure obesity, type 2 diabetes, acne, arthritis, mental ‘fogginess,’ and more,” said Sapirstein.

Gluten-free products are consistently more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. This premium may be an inconvenience to individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but also may work to suggest to other consumers, rightly or wrongly, that what they are paying for is “better” or “worth it.”

“What’s worse are the proponents of this sort of diet extremism, often book authors, who  latch on to limited or unsound science to make sweeping, simplistic, and even disturbing assertions about the evils of wheat for health, when the totality of scientific evidence points to its many health benefits,” said Sapirstein.

“Besides, there is almost no food more appealing sensory-wise than oven-fresh bread, that only the uniqueness of wheat gluten proteins can deliver,” said Sapirstein.

Harry Sapirstein is an associate professor in the U of M’s department food science. His research interests include the composition and function of wheat proteins in baking, optimizing wheat bran for health, and studying the effects of the growing environment and genotype on the breadmaking quality of Western Canadian wheat.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of Science Fiction. There are many popular misconceptions to cover, and many professors to help shed light on them.