December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Glutenus Maximus

By |2018-03-21T19:03:13+01:00November 13th, 2014|"Suzanne's Taste"|
The gluten-free craze is crazy, and ubiquitous.

get miffed when bread is the enemy. I also get annoyed when food is a combatant. Cooking, eating with friends, and a convivial love of food is among life’s great pleasures. Fear of bread? Gasping at gluten? Give mea break.

I admit — full disclosure — that I once had a bakery business. But the food world seemed saner then. Few people were preoccupied with gluten-free products and obsessed with what they might not be able to tolerate. Mothers didn’t insist that their children eat only gluten-free breads and cookies. Supermarkets didn’t overflow with gluten-free items, from food to hair products (yes).

Please don’t think I’m trivializing what I know is a real condition. I’m not. Some people do suffer from gluten intolerance, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, and various kinds of allergies. My gluten phobia is part of my concern about a growing unwillingness to distinguish between actual medical conditions and the faddish tendency to make certain foods (or ingredients) into the root of all evil.

When it comes to what ails us, it seems easier to blame a specific food product than to consider a host of other possible causes, including problems with work, mates, kids, or stress in general. I worry that some of us may be self-diagnosing ourselves based on what we’ve read online or picked up on from friends. We might decide to kick out gluten when the real culprit could be too many snacks, junk food, rich desserts, or fat-free diet sodas (artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are being studied as possible contributors to memory loss; the jury isn’t in yet, but still.) If someone is diagnosed as gluten intolerant, fair enough. There are gluten-free foods in abundance to keep meals interesting.

But while we’re on the subject, here’s another question: how much gluten does it actually take to trigger a serious reaction? Can you eat a slice a week of whole wheat seven-grain toast? What about twice a week? Or is it all verboten? And if someone who is not actually gluten intolerant eliminates gluten, might they not be provoking health woes that might not have arisen by sticking with a more balanced diet?

Gluten is a mainstay. It’s in many brands of commercial ice creams, plenty of processed foods, including spice mixtures, salad dressings, sauces and similar condiments. It’s also in frozen dinners and some ready-made side dishes, along with yogurt and some milk products. So if you’re really gluten intolerant you’d better start scanning labels. You’ll be amazed.

But let’s take a step back. Say you’re convinced gluten is causing your indigestion, sour stomach, headaches, and so on. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon, why not first examine your entire diet to check for eating imbalances? Self-diagnosis is a potentially dangerous knee-jerk reaction. Don’t assume you know what you don’t. See a doctor. Get it verified. Don’t kick out good food unless someone can confirm it’s harming you.

On a recent American trip I decided to do a little digging into just what’s in diet colas, since they’re everywhere. It didn’t surprise me to find that most are laced with artificial sweeteners and chemical additives. As for coffee and tea drinks, many are caffeinated and contain milk, cream or ice cream.

People can be gullible. They’ll drink what’s obviously bad for them but decide they feel rotten for some other reason. When I did giveaways for our bakery, I actually met women who told me they couldn’t accept bread products because they were yeast intolerant. After all, yeast caused yeast infections. Oh, boy.

My doctor, who’s been practicing for half-a-century, recently told me gluten-related celiac and gastrointestinal disorders are a fairy recent arrival on the diagnostic scene. The problems didn’t come up as much before the junk food invasion, when families ate more or less together and at more or less regular intervals. Tummy problems were fewer and more easily treatable by fine tuning diets.

So do me a favor. If you’re convinced you’re suffering from gluten-related problems, before assuming you’re right, try eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, or fish or poultry cooked simply. Consume products in which olive oil (not palm and coconut oil) is used. Drink plenty of water daily, moderate your alcohol use, and stop snacking between meals.

If you happen to feel better, you can even indulge in a crispy, golden brown piece of seven-grain toast — with butter, of course.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.