Kimberly Parsons is the brains behind the gluten-free Retreat Café, London. She also practices as a naturopath, working closely with clients to combat a wide range of dietary and health related issues. Now with 10 years experience in this field she finds a holistic approach to health to be a sustainable and practical way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. She shares with us at Gymbox why gluten has become a culinary villain.
Gluten is one of the most heavily consumed proteins on earth. It’s created when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, come into contact and form a bond which when kneaded in dough creates an elastic membrane giving bread that chewy texture. Gluten also traps carbon dioxide, which, as it ferments, adds volume to the loaf. Until about a decade ago, we rarely seemed to give gluten much thought. We were happy to eat wheat and the gluten in it. However, in recent years, gluten seems to have been convicted of some horrible crime and become a culinary villain.
You may ask, what changed? The most obvious question is also the most difficult to answer: How could gluten, present in staple foods that have sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening? Some researchers argue that wheat genes have become indigestible and toxic due to mass production driven changes to how the grain is farmed and processed. Sadly, the bread on our supermarket shelves today is nothing like the bread found on tables just fifty years ago. The version of ‘wheat’ we consume today is a product of genetic research and it is impossible for us to obtain the forms of wheat that were grown just fifty years ago.
Up until the late 19th century, when steel rollers and industrial mills came into use, wheat was ground on stones. Steel was fast, efficient and it permitted millers to discard the nutritious part of wheat, germ and the bran, and then rapidly process the starchy endosperm. This made white flour. Almost nobody seemed to notice, or care, that by tossing out the rest of the kernel industrial bakers were stripping bread of its vitamins and fibre. Instead, white bread was seen as an affordable luxury!
With the significant increase in our gluten product intake over the past 50 years due to the ubiquity and overconsumption of products made with highly refined wheat flour, we are just beginning to appreciate gluten's impact on our health. As a society, we are in a state of "gluten overload," and millions of people of all ages and all walks of life are suffering as a result.
Coeliac disease affects at least 1% of people in the UK and Europe; however, only 24% of people with the condition are clinically diagnosed. However, this is changing; the rate has increased from 5.2 per 100,000 in 1990 to 19.1 per 100,000 in 2011. This increase in diagnosis seems to have triggered a huge surge in individuals seeking out gluten-free products and we can contribute most of this to the fact that more people are being tested than ever before and therefore making the decision to remove gluten from their diets.
I would therefore suggest that most people deciding to move away from gluten are doing so as a conscious decision to avoid mass produced, nutritionally devoid, carbohydrate rich foods from their diets and instead opting to utilise the varieties of other whole grains now on the market as a way to diversify their diet and nutrient intake. My only word of caution here is that any time you eliminate whole categories of food from your diet you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies. Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits, but the many whole grains that contain gluten do. They’re rich in an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fibre. Therefore, when making the choice to go gluten-free you must be vigilant with making sure you find these missing nutrients in other foods. Luckily, raw gluten-free ingredients such as buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth and millet are all gluten-free and can fill the place of wheat from our diets.
In treating patients in my naturopathic practice, I have found that eliminating gluten for a few weeks and gradually reintroducing it is the best way to assess your body's response to gluten and determine your own gluten threshold. By gradually introducing gluten-containing grains and other foods, you'll get an understanding of which of these foods, or how much of them, your body can process without triggering symptoms.
On the 19th of May, my latest recipe book ‘The Yoga Kitchen’ will be released. It is a vegetarian, gluten and sugar-free recipe book designed to energise your body, balance the mind and make for a happier you. Indulge yourself and loved ones with delicious gluten-free recipes and start adding some of these new and exciting grains and seeds into your diet. The book is available for pre-order now on Amazon at or the Book Depository.