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Gluten may not be your friend

Have you ever tried eating from a hotel’s room service menu between meals?

Assume that it is four pm and you have missed lunch. Assume also that you are travelling alone and don’t really want to go down to the coffee shop. So, you stick to the room service menu.


If you like wheat, you will be a happy man. Much of the menu will consist of sandwiches. If the hotel is ambitious then it will offer Indian alternatives to sandwiches. Kathi rolls perhaps. If you want something more substantial, then there may be pizzas. Or, if you want something that is more like a meal, then you could have a bowl of pasta.


   It is pretty much the same at breakfast. If you don’t want to start your day with eggs or bacon, then how about French Toast? Waffles? Pancakes? Or, you can go Indian. Parathas? Puri bhaji?


   If you are a vegetarian and want to avoid wheat then, outside of lunch and dinner, you will be able to eat only something like 10 per cent of the menu. The other 90 per cent will be out of your reach.


   I am not a vegetarian. But I usually find it hard to start the day with too much meat or eggs. (And most egg dishes need toast to seem complete anyway.) And I avoid wheat. So my breakfast options are severely limited. No bakery basket, no pancakes, no aloo parathas, etc. All I end up eating day after day when I am on the road are idlis for breakfast. At most hotels, dosas are delivered by room service at least 20 minutes after they have been made, by which time their texture has been destroyed so they are not a real option either. (The notable exception is the Gardenia in Bengaluru where the dosas are usually fresh. In my wilder moments, I sometimes think of the whole hotel as a giant Sagar or Woodlands outlet – though the dosas are even better than those two South Indian chains!)


   At some stage, I imagine, hotels (and restaurants) will have to start rethinking their menus. More and more people are avoiding wheat and in the decade since I first started writing about it, the phrase ‘gluten free’ has gone from being an obscure expression used by health-faddists to becoming a standard feature on menus and at supermarkets in the West. It is catching on in India too, but I reckon we are still several years behind the West.


   Some things are indisputable. Wheat contains gluten, a substance that gives bread its elasticity and gives wheat its special character. (Why is a Japanese tempura crisper than an Indian pakora? Because tempura uses wheat, which has gluten while our pakoras are made from gluten-less besan.)


   There is no doubt that a proportion of the population is intolerant to gluten. You can argue about how high this proportion is (because diagnosis is often faulty, inadequate or non-existent) but one dangerous manifestation of this intolerance is celiac disease. The author and nutritionist Ishi Khosla has been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of celiac disease, founding The Celiac Society in 2006.


   Khosla has written many books about nutrition (the latest of which is Eating At Work) but a recurring theme in her work is that wheat is best avoided. Sometimes this can seem a little extreme: a 2011 book was called Is Wheat Killing You? and described as ‘a guide to a wheat-free life’. (She is sincere though the usual rule in journalism is that if you have to frame a headline as a question then the answer is always ‘no’.)


   Nobody can quarrel with Khosla’s central belief that wheat (or more properly, gluten) causes celiac disease, a serious condition that can even be fatal.


   Nutritionists (like Khosla) now say that even those of us without celiac disease can develop gluten intolerance and that this leads to detrimental effects on health, all from the way from bloating (which I know to be true), and abdominal discomfort to mood changes and even, brain fog.


"So, it doesn’t really matter whether your grandfathers could eat wheat or milk. These things keep changing."

   Initially the wheat industry made a determined effort to fight this claim but the battle has largely been lost. Like dairy producers who said that lactose intolerance was not really a problem before abandoning this clearly false position, the wheat sector has not had much success in fighting the claim that many of us (without celiac disease) are gluten intolerant. Such American bestsellers as Wheat Belly have reinforced the idea that wheat is bad for you.


   But how bad is it? And why should wheat, on which most Western, Middle Eastern and North Indian diets are based, suddenly turn into the enemy? If it was so unhealthy, then shouldn’t our ancestors all have died before they came of age? Yet, they lived long and healthy lives and kept procreating. (Otherwise we would not be here.)


   These are difficult questions to answer and that is where the battle has been focussed. The anti-gluten campaigners say that food intolerances do not stay the same over centuries: they come and go. The prevalence of celiac disease, for instance, has risen over the last century.


   A similar case (in the opposite direction) can be made for lactose tolerance. The East Asian diet has always lacked milk because the people of China, Japan etc. were lactose-intolerant. But recent generations seem more able to digest milk than their forefathers and there is an explosion of ice cream parlours all over East Asia.


   So, it doesn’t really matter whether your grandfathers could eat wheat or milk. These things keep changing.


   It is the second reason offered by the anti-gluten activists that hits the wheat lobby hardest. Activists say that gluten intolerances have increased because of the mutation and hybridisation of wheat strains. All over the world, farmers now use high-yielding varieties of wheat, many of which were developed in laboratories. Most of these strains would not survive in the wild. They have been created specifically for high-yield farming.


   It is this new wheat that activists blame for the rise in gluten intolerance. And indeed, in America, there is a move to go back to older strains of wheat, which are lab-free and are believed to cause fewer intolerances.


   None of this is to say that the Western world is going gluten-free. Just as the campaign against modern wheat strains has picked up, there have also been pizza and pasta booms. Baking (which is almost entirely wheat dependant) has also become a craze. So, there are many competing trends and no single view is dominant.


   Your decision about how much wheat to eat has to be a personal one. There are no reliable scientific tests for non-celiac gluten intolerance. In my own case, I have found that there is no obvious logic to intolerance. I avoid wheat but it is not a rigid view. If I am reviewing a restaurant or experimenting with a new dish, I will eat wheat. And my anti-gluten stand gets thrown out of the window if I am confronted with a plate of delicious chaat.


   Sometimes wheat causes discomfort and bloating and yet sometimes the reaction is not so bad. Perhaps this has to do with the quantity of gluten (Ishi Khosla suggests that most people can tolerate 10mg of gluten but 100mg can be a problem). Or perhaps it has to do with the strain of wheat that is used.


   But if you are going to avoid gluten, remember that, these days, nearly everything contains some level of wheat so it is not going to be easy. Many of us don’t realise that semolina (rava) is a derivative of wheat. So a dosa is fine but a rava dosa is packed with gluten. So-called ‘healthy’ multi-grain options usually contain gluten. Whole wheat is not much better than maida. Barley has gluten so avoid drinks made with barley. For instance, beer is packed with gluten.


   Even Far Eastern food can be a no-no. Soya sauce has gluten and though you do get gluten-free soya sauces (I use them at home), few restaurants will bother with them. So the soya you dip your sushi into is pushing gluten into your system.


   What should you do?


   Here’s my view. Work on the assumption that you don’t have celiac disease unless you have any symptoms. Watch out for the harmful effects of gluten on your system – if you have them. They are not difficult to spot if you look out for them. For instance, give up bread and rotis, and cakes (and pasta, pizza etc.) for a fortnight. See if you feel healthier. If you don’t, then forget about all this gluten-free stuff.


   If, on the other hand, you do feel better then try to cut down on gluten. Avoid pasta, pizza, wheat noodles, parathas, samosas, etc. It is not that difficult (unless you depend on hotel room service menus!) to do. Don’t be a fanatic. A little soya sauce is fine. The odd slice of birthday cake is okay.


   But never forget that gluten may not be your friend. So treat it with a level of (largely benign) watchfulness.




  • Rao 05 Dec 2019

    I would want more people to read this article. I've been on Gluten-free diets for 2 yrs now but find it quite difficult when I'm traveling. I eat gluten-free chapatis on Rotimatic & a lot of dals & millets. I feel & my yearly physicals are great. Wheat causes inflammation of the internal organs like pancreas & liver, leading to disease.

Posted On: 30 Nov 2019 02:40 PM
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