Call me a skeptic. Maybe it is because I have what some refer to as an iron gut. I can eat anything. Anything. Never sick. Or maybe it is because I've had the runaround one too many times, a doctor trying to convince me that one son or the other had the sickness du jour: He MUST be allergic to milk or dust or strawberries; he definitely has an ear infection (it was too much sun); and the list goes on. Or maybe it is because all of a sudden one sees article after article, T.V. special after T.V. special warning us about food, advising against giving children peanuts, berries, seafood, eggs, milk: Food allergy as global epidemic. We are now frightened of everything; what was considered a normal, everyday staple when we were kids is now a potential danger, a hidden time bomb. Food packages and restaurant menus now list in detail all the possible ingredients that could cause a violent allergic reaction. Food is no longer fun, no longer a pleasure, it is deadly.
Call me a skeptic, but it seems like overload to me.
And now it seems that the world has gone gluten-free. Everyone, it seems, is gluten intolerant.
I was more than surprised, on a recent trip to Italy, to see the gluten-free movement taking hold in that most traditional of countries, a country tied so strongly to their food culture. Not simply settling for part of a supermarket aisle dedicated to gluten-free products, as in France, but rather entire specialty gluten-free markets are sprouting up all over the country. Yet even in France, according to a recent television program entitled "Gluten, Faut-Il En Avoir Peur?" ("Should We Be Afraid of Gluten?"), the French gluten-free market has tripled over the last three years. Tripled!
As a food blogger, I have watched gluten-free blogs spring up like weeds, spread like wildfire; everyone, it seems, is either celiac or gluten intolerant or lives with someone who is. Food blogs offering recipes for cakes, cookies and breads using traditional wheat flour now seem to be jumping on the bandwagon and presenting more and more gluten-free recipes as well. So many people are discussing the perils and risks of gluten; everyone vaunting the benefits of gluten-free and how eliminating the gluten from their diets changed their lives.
Well, personally, this seems to smack somewhat of a food fad or even, sadly, the next sickness du jour. After macarons, cupcakes, bacon desserts, pork belly and homemade sausages, is gluten free the next big thing? Is it truly the global health menace bordering on epidemic that all of these news reports and food blogs seem to lead us to believe or is it simply the next trend? Is it really possible that almost overnight and certainly in less than one generation so many of us have suddenly become gluten intolerant?
I must admit that "Gluten, Faut-Il En Avoir Peur?" did open this skeptic's eyes to the real dangers of gluten. The drastic rise in sensibility and allergies to gluten seems to be mainly due to the manipulation of wheat, forced food production demanding hardier, more robust strains. According to the program, the presence of gluten in wheat has doubled in the last century.
The development of and changes in mechanical, standardized production required by the higher demand for bread and other wheat products has also welcomed these newer strains of wheat, allowing for the absolute control of and standardization of the quality of the finished product: Uniformity in color, texture, flavor as well as the possibility to freeze dough now being the primary concerns. And on top of the raw product being denser in gluten (containing higher quantities of gluten), gluten in its pure form is now being added directly to the dough of processed bread -- in industrial or mass-produced baguettes here in France, for example.
A recent and excellent article by David Katz on The Huffington Post confirmed much of the information in this news special, convincing me that there is a real and serious rise in gluten insensitivity due to the growing intolerance to these new varieties of wheat as well as the added gluten in so many of our day-to-day food products.
Consumption of man-manipulated gluten-dense wheat, over time, is creating adverse reactions and we are seeing this in the general population in merely one generation. We are simply not used to eating something so unnatural. It begins to act like a poison in our bodies, attacking the intestines, causing sickness, stomachaches, migraines, behavioral changes, etc., and even eventually weakening our immune systems. Makes perfect sense to me.
But coming back to my own personal skepticism: While watching the program on gluten, I found myself truly convinced that this was indeed no mere trend or fad, but a real disease of epidemic proportions -- a whopping 600,000 people in France, according to this show, suffer from some form of gluten intolerance, more or less serious, more or less detectable. Yet, as I turned off the television and paused to think about it, I realized something: There was not one single voice of doubt, not one person interviewed suggesting that, in fact, the numbers just don't add up.
That while many people are celiac or gluten-intolerant, maybe there are other factors in play that quite possibly are skewing the numbers, convincing more people that they are sick when they are not. Maybe it is simply a matter of too much information and too much credibility in our own vulnerability. According to Dr. Katz, only 1 percent of the American public is truly celiac while a mere 5 to 10 percent are gluten intolerant. What about all the others who claim to be allergic? Are we coddling ourselves and our children too much?
According to Dr. Katz, awareness also plays a major role in our reaction; we are looking for it so we find it. As when that pediatrician, so many years ago, tried to assure me that my son was allergic to dairy products when, in fact, he wasn't. If, as was stated in "Gluten, Faut-Il En Avoir Peur?", a full 10 to 15 percent of all cases cannot be diagnosed because of a total lack of symptoms, it does question the diagnosis in the first place, doesn't it? When I read all the stories of the sudden discovery of being gluten intolerant followed by a miraculous recovery, I begin to wonder if there are not other factors at play, and I was more than disturbed that the program on French television (and many of those gluten-free blogs that I have read) don't seem to give credit to the simple change of diet.
In eliminating gluten from one's diet, how many simply give up processed food and return to a healthier, cleaner, more balanced diet based not on store-bought, pre-packaged foods but foods made from real fruits and vegetables, organic flours, foods not packed with chemical additives, preservatives, coloring and flavorings and processed or man-made sugars, thickeners and such? So many of us tend towards a lousy diet filled with fast food, junk food, canned, frozen or packaged foods, that once all or most of these are eliminated from our diets, well it only makes sense that we feel better, right?
But are we now captive to a new market, a new trend? While removing wheat and the processed foods that contain wheat can sometimes give the feeling of better health, what about the simple fact of cleaning up our diets? Eating fresh and unprocessed foods will make us feel better and an overall healthier lifestyle will rid us of many of the ill effects of a generally bad diet. So why, then, the spate, the veritable deluge of gluten-free food blogs and news programs? Why all of those gluten-free food products flooding our supermarkets and health food stores, now all the rage!?
I am still convinced that much of it is simply a matter of going to where the traffic is, following the trend, creating a new market through the general public's desire to be special. As a food blogger, I am on the front lines of observing what fads and foods ripple through the blogosphere, the crazes that sweep through kitchens everywhere, whether professional or home, and I myself have mixed feelings on the subject. And although I know that celiac disease and gluten intolerance are very real and serious medical conditions, I do feel that it has become a trend, a fashion pure and simple.
Yet, although I tend to avoid all food and blogging trends like the plague, and although neither I nor anyone I am close to is gluten intolerant, I have been curious for quite some time about gluten-free baking. And so, in the name of continuing my research, out of pure inquisitiveness, I decided to head to some of the biggest, most popular gluten-free food blogs and check out the recipes. I wanted to make a cake. Or cookies. Or at least something sweet. I bake, after all. It is what I love best. And it is also the test when it comes to gluten free: Can one bake a dynamite dessert or loaf of bread when one must change all the rules and many of the ingredients? Yet one after the next, I was more than astonished to find ingredients in so many recipes that I personally find inaccessible:
Ener-G Egg Replacer
What? Where? How? My pantry is usually stocked with a wide variety of interesting flours: chestnut and chickpea, rye and oat, even spelt flour. Most of these are available in our local health food store or on-line and are the source of so many different, tasty recipes, but psyllium husk? Guar gum? How many people will be able to find any of these ingredients much less know what they are? So I continued my search for the perfect gluten-free recipe and ended up turning to my friend Ilva's blog, Lucullian Delights, a stunning site indeed, with creative and healthy recipes based on seasonal, fresh ingredients.
Although not gluten intolerant herself, Ilva did delve into the world of gluten-free baking for a while out of, like me, a sense of curiosity as well as the desire to feed a few gluten-sensitive friends. And on looking through her blog, I found several wonderful, easy and accessible recipes. These gluten-free brownies are so moist and fudgy they are certain to please the most discerning brownie lover, the most die-hard chocolate fanatic, whether gluten-intolerant or not. Simple chickpea flour replaces the regular wheat flour, making this an easy-to-make treat for any home baker. My own biggest critics, my sons, couldn't eat these fast enough and I found them the most delicious pan of brownies I have ever made -- and I have certainly made my fare share!
GLUTEN-FREE BROWNIES WITH PECANS & CHICKPEA FLOUR
10 ½ Tbs (150 g/5.3 oz) unsalted butter
100 g/ 3.5 oz dark quality chocolate
1/2 cup + 2 Tbs (80 g/2.8 oz) chickpea flour
1 pinch of salt
2 - 3 Tbs dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 cup (200 g/7 oz) sugar
50 g/1.8 oz toasted pecans or hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) and grease a 9-inch (25 cm) square brownie or cake pan, bottom and sides.
Melt the butter and chocolate together in a small pan or in a bain-marie (place in a heatproof bowl set over a small pan of an inch of gently simmering water) over low heat, stirring until melted. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit.
Whisk or stir together the chickpea flour, the salt and the cocoa powder in a small bowl and set aside.
Place the eggs and the sugar in a large mixing bowl and whisk briskly for a few minutes until fluffy (this is very easily done by hand). Whisk in the butter and chocolate in a steady stream until blended.
Add the dry ingredients to the batter and stir or whisk until well blended. Stir in the coarsely chopped nuts. Pour the brownie batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes until the surface is matte and the center of the brownies just set. A toothpick or tester inserted in the center should come out damp but not coated with raw batter.
Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool on a rack before cutting and serving.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.