The Truth About Gluten




For most of her life, Cathy Berzins suffered from intermittent digestive problems and migraines. She had difficulty staying focused. “I just didn’t feel well,” she says. Doctors found nothing wrong. “I wasn’t making it up,” she says, “but I learned to live with it.”

Her gastric discomfort was particularly frustrating, considering she was a cook devoted to healthy foods. She even ground wheat berries herself to make her own bread.

Then she heard someone talk about celiac disease. When people with the autoimmune disease eat gluten—a protein found in wheat, rye and barley—they experience a reaction that can damage the small intestine. The only treatment is to avoid products with gluten.

Berzins is a believer. “Migraine headaches are not an issue for me now,” she says. “I can think more clearly.” She’s embraced the gluten-free diet to such an extent that in May she opened The Birch Tree Café, a gluten-free restaurant inside Good Earth Market, located just outside Bethany Beach.

The eatery is part of a growing movement. These days, hosts and hostesses are facing as many gluten-free guests as meat- and dairy-free diners. Restaurants, including Ulysses American Gastropub in North Wilmington and Home Grown Café in Newark, have gluten-free menus. Grotto Pizza has gluten-free crusts, and gluten-free products share supermarket shelf space with conventional items.

Janssen’s in Greenville upped its offerings seven years ago, in part to cater to a growing number of consumers with dietary concerns. “Any number of our customers just feel better without wheat,” says Eileen Janssen.

And there, perhaps, is the rub. Does everyone on a gluten-free diet truly need to be? Will it help you or hurt you?

The questions can raise some hackles. “People with celiac disease are pretty incensed that so many people without it want to go gluten-free,” says Sharon Howard, a registered dietitian at Christiana Care’s Eugene du Pont Preventative Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute in Greenville, whose daughter has the disease.

People with celiac disease feel they don’t have the luxury of a choice. Even the slightest bit of gluten—picture a communion wafer—can cause a reaction.

Nevertheless, few would argue that they’ve benefitted from the number of gluten-free consumers who’ve made it a choice. Products are becoming plentiful. Sales of gluten-free foods are expected to top $5.5 billion by 2015, and given the numbers, not all those are going to people with celiac disease.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in 133 people has celiac disease in the United States. That’s a relatively small number considering one in three people has cardiovascular disease.

The wide variety of symptoms traditionally made it hard to diagnose. They range from intestinal issues—gas, constipation or diarrhea—to depression, mouth ulcers, fatigue, joint pain and infertility. You may have stomach pain, but you may not, even though the disease affects nutrient absorption.

A blood test now checks for celiac disease, but patients must eat gluten prior to being tested. Rather than go back on gluten, Berzins, who had been gluten-free for a year when the doctor suggested the test, opted for a DNA test. (This disease runs in families, and her daughter also has it.)

Some people don’t have celiac disease, but they still have trouble with gluten. The journal BMC Medicine published a paper that claims up to 18 million people are “gluten sensitive.” They have a reaction when they reach a certain threshold. “They can probably handle a little cereal in the morning but not a big hoagie roll at dinner,” Howard explains.

Irene Soucy, a dietitian in Beebe Medical Center’s Nutritional Services Department, has seen increased interest in gluten sensitivity. “The media, word-of-mouth and the increased availability of gluten-free foods have helped spur this trend,” she says. 

Some gluten-free followers have neither the disease nor the intolerance. They have an allergy or sensitivity to the protein in wheat. They might be fine with barley or rye or wheat’s cousin, spelt.

Then there are those who want to reduce their consumption of genetically engineered grains. “Most of us are eating way too much wheat and grains to process them well,” says April Pedrick of Harvest Market Natural Foods in Hockessin. “Even people without celiac disease might experience bloating. The stuff can sit in the digestive track.

Not surprisingly, some people hope that going gluten-free will cure what ails them. “They eat poorly and want to unscientifically blame a food group,” Howard says. They may decide to play with their diet rather than face a battery of tests. Soucy says about half of her gluten-free clients restricted their diet without a clinical test or biopsy to diagnose celiac disease.

If you’re considering a gluten-free path, be prepared: It’s not an easy road. For one, some of the products have more calories than their conventional counterparts, which is a wake-up call for those whose goal is to lose weight. To make gluten-free products an appetizing alternative, they may contain more sugar or eggs. Consequently, people who grab prepared or packaged substitutes can pack on pounds.

A true gluten-free diet requires vigilance. Regular soy sauce has gluten. So do many vitamins. Malt, Soucy says, is a “hidden” source of gluten. “Barley grain appears as malt or malt flavoring,” she says. Rice or corn cereal, which seems fine on the surface, might have malt flavoring as an additive, she notes.

Cross-contamination is a continual fear. The knife that buttered wheat bread shouldn’t be used to butter rice bread. Some households have two toasters and dedicated cutting boards.

Berzins previously was a partner in Café on 26 in Bethany, which also offers conventional products. She left to devote herself to gluten-free goods because she was too concerned about unintentional cross-contamination. “It’s not negotiable,” she says. “Unless I could ensure no cross-contamination, I had to eliminate gluten from cooking altogether.”

Eating out presents a problem for gluten-free diners. What happens if the kitchen delivers the salad with croutons? Howard has a friend who hides a sugar packet under the lettuce before she sends a dish back to the kitchen. When the new salad arrives, she checks for the packet to see if they just removed the croutons instead of making a fresh salad.

Although Home Grown Café offers a gluten-free menu, there’s no way chef-owner Eric Aber can guarantee an item isn’t unintentionally contaminated. “It’s a can of worms,” he acknowledges. “We won’t use regular soy sauce on a gluten-free dish, but I’m constantly worried about diners and food allergies.”

Those testing the gluten-free waters should also up their food budget. The items aren’t cheap. Gluten-free bread might cost $3 or $4 more than regular bread. Shop around. Products are available at a variety of sources.

Followers also need to make up for the minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates and nutrients that gluten products provide. You’ll miss out on the benefits of enriched wheat flours or whole grains, for instance. “It’s nutritionally a mistake to unnecessarily change your diet,” Howard says.

If you’ve gone gluten-free for some time and you’re not seeing results, you could have an issue with fructans, not gluten. Fructans are present in garlic and artichokes, along with wheat.

For a period of time, many people may experiment with gluten-free foods to see if they notice a difference in how they feel. Marianne Carter tried a gluten-fee diet upon her doctor’s recommendation. (Her issues actually stemmed from thyroid medication.)

Director of the Center for Health Promotion at Delaware State University, Carter was thrilled that there were so many choices, but she was glad to learn she didn’t have celiac disease.

“There is a role for gluten-free products, especially for those who really need it,” she says. “But people shouldn’t feel it’s nutritionally superior if you can handle wheat.”

For Berzins, gluten-free foods are not a passing phase. They’re an important part of her lifestyle. “Natural whole wheat is a good food,” she says. “It’s just that my body doesn’t recognize gluten as friend. It’s a foe.”

And it’s one she’s happy to live without.

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February 2016

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Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
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View map »

More information

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The Station Gallery
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View map »


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More information

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, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Features activities and crafts that help visitors learn about local and national political roles in environmental conservation. Visitors can learn about the battle that politicians fought for a...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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The Philly Home Show will inspire your inner HGTV star at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia from Feb. 12–14 and 19–21. The show will feature highly interactive...

Cost: $13

Where:
Pennsylvania Convention Center
1101 Arch St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch? That is the question to be answered—not with chests full of gold, but with a spectacular array of ancient artifacts,...

Cost: Adults $20; seniors $18; students (with ID) $15; children (ages 6–17) $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Guests can explore three floors of exhibitions in the Visitor Center, stroll along the river through dozens of historic structures from the Industrial Revolution, and explore the gardens and...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
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Penn Museum opens the world premiere exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas—featuring ancient treasures on loan from the Republic of Turkey—with a spectacular daylong public...

Cost: $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and CAMP Rehoboth will co-present "Tab Hunter Confidential" and "Portrait of a Serial Monogamist" as part of its annual Another Take...

Cost: $8

Where:
Metropolitan Community Church
19369 Plantation Rd.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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"La Sylphide" shares the beautiful and romantic story of our hero, James—a young Scottish farmer who, on the eve of hid wedding, abandons his betrothed, Effie, after being...

Cost: $25

Where:
Salesanium School
1801 North Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Sponsor: Academy of International Ballet
Telephone: 1-866-908-5666
Contact Name: Denis Gronostayskiy
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Venture back with us for an evening where we re-imagine the Victorian Industrial Age as seen through our steam-powered, futuristic goggles.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year and all proceeds...

Cost: $100-$110

Where:
Smyrna Opera House
7 West South Street
Smyrna, DE  19977
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A spoiled orphan girl is sent to live with her uncle on the Yorkshire moors and discovers renewed life, for herself and her sickly cousin, in bringing her dead aunt’s secret garden back to...

Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Location: St. Mark’s High School, 2501 Pike Creek Road, Wilmington Time: Registration: 11:30 a.m. Race: 12:30 p.m. Fee: $25 (until Thursday, Feb. 11), $35 after and day of event...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Beebe Healthcare’s Medical Center, 424 Savannah Road, Lewes Date: Saturday, Feb. 13 (and the second Saturday of each month) Time: 9 a.m. Fee: Free For more...

Where:
, DE

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Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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