By Laura Aiken
Gluten-free is still the heavyweight champion of the Canadian baking
industry when it comes to the reigning topic in nutrition myth busting
Gluten-free is still the heavyweight champion of the Canadian baking industry when it comes to the reigning topic in nutrition myth busting,. On Jan. 21, the Ontario chapter of the Baking Association of Canada (BAC) held a technical seminar promoted as a myth-busting discussion among an esteemed panel on the subject of gluten-free and other topics such as fibre and non-GMO. With only so much time in one afternoon, gluten-free and its related conversations decidedly took centre stage. It all culminated in a bottom line for bakers that the panel largely agreed on: Gut health is BIG. And gluten-free is not going away.
|The myth-busting panel, from left to right: Uma Sebastiampillal, Lynn Garison, Sue Newell, Rob Kowal, Christine Lowry and Jennifer Sygo.
The panel was composed of mostly registered dietitians working in various roles, and although there was some inevitable overlap of gluten-free information, each presenter brought unique information to the table.
First up: gluten-free myths versus facts
Jennifer Sygo, M.Sc. and RD, works as a sport nutritionist with the Cleveland Clinic of Canada and in private practice. She is a nutrition columnist with the National Post, and has authored the soon-to-be-released book Unmasking Superfoods, which takes a critical look at the superfoods trend. Her presentation focused on separating gluten myth from fact, drawing largely on the arguments made in Wheat Belly.
There is conflicting nutritional information out there, she has found, and she said the world of nutrition is at a “tipping point where science is re-evaluating what has been accepted for a long time.” The popularity of gluten disdain, driven by books, celebrity, alternative medicine, word of mouth and some scientific evidence that is being actively debated, has prompted more research into the area. This means we will see more studies on gluten being published in the future.
Wheat Belly alleges that gluten causes disease, various ailments and weight gain, and that the protein is also present in our food in higher amounts than in the past. The first point she addressed, and the one she said author Dr. William Davis raises a valid inquiry about, was whether or not genetically altered (not modified) wheat has taken issue with the human body. The alteration in question centres on research that began in the 1940s and led to high yield, very resistant wheat; a scientific achievement that Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace prize for in 1970 as his contribution was credited with bringing more world peace through increasing the food supply. Has the altered wheat increased the gluten content? And if we are eating more gluten, is that a problem? This is an area she said needs more research.
As far as Davis’ other gluten blames in the book are concerned, Sygo was quick to bust myth from what she believes are the scientific facts. Davis proposes wheat is an appetite stimulant, but she said the fact is that there is no scientific evidence to support this assertion. On the claim that wheat makes one fat, she said the fact is that obesity causes are multifaceted and to “lower to one cause is being an evangelist.” On Davis’ argument that people were skinnier in the 1950s and 1960s and now we are not, so it must be caused by wheat, Sygo pointed to the fact that people in that era did a lot more demanding housework and that sitting is a defining problem of the current era.
She cautioned to be wary of what you read. As the author of a soon-to-be-published book, she said no one “fact checks your work.” It’s not a peer-reviewed journal. Data in Davis’ book is hand picked and there is potential for authors to select views that are favourable to the messaging. It is much easier to present a biased position when writing a book for public consumption as opposed to publishing in a scientific journal.
She wrapped up her myth busting with a challenge to Davis’ argument that gluten is a problem for all people. Her bottom line is this: There is no convincing scientific evidence that gluten is problematic for 93 per cent of the population, but about seven per cent really have a problem (the 1 in 133 who have celiac disease and the estimated six per cent of the population who have gluten sensitivity). Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where damage is done to the intestinal lining when gluten is consumed. Gluten sensitivity is not an autoimmune disease; damage is not done to the intestines, but the condition can present as a number of other physical maladies. The number of people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease is three times the number of people with anaphylactic food allergies, she said, so there is definitely a market there.
Her last point segued into some market opportunities she sees for the bread industry in general. She sees market potential for bread makers to incorporate ancient grains or other non-wheat grains and artisan bread that focus on quality, story and process. Clean labels, “your grandmother’s bread” – in essence “going back into the past to change the future” – is one way industry may be able to re-establish the trust that’s been broken by what’s been published in the popular press.
During the afternoon Q and A session, Sygo identified awareness of gut health in general as being a big trend, and said she believes fermented foods will go “hog-wild.” She recently came across research that took a look at people who had what seemed like an inability to lose weight despite best efforts, and the results suggested that the participants all exhibited shared traits of poor gut health, insulin resistance and chronic inflammation in the body.
When asked what she felt the next big thing would be, she noted vitamin K2, found in animal fat, is an emerging area of research. Vitamin K2 tells calcium where to go in the body, and if you don’t have enough it seems to go to your arteries instead of your bones. As more studies come out, it could signal a return to full-fat cheese and butter.
From gluten-free to all about grains
Christine Lowry, M.Sc. and RD, is the nutrition and policy advisor for the Healthy Grains Institute. Her presentation focused on what the young organization’s mission is and on what successes they have had so far.
The Healthy Grains Institute, a Canadian non-profit, was formed to bring balance and influence to the public conversation on gluten-free and grains.
“Consumer consume headlines,” said Lowry. “Then take it as gospel truth.”
The institute encompasses more than nutrition, she said. It enters the spheres of gastroenterology, cardiology, pediatrics, plant breeding and grain science. The organization rests on the backbone belief in the science that shows people who eat three or more portions of whole grains per day experience a decreased risk of colorectal and pancreatic cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and abdominal fat.
While Sygo discussed the impact of Wheat Belly in North America, Lowry told a tale of a pre-emptive strike that softened the negative impact of Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter on the media and public perception.
The organization sent out a press release about the publication of the grains-positive book Mindfull by Dr. Carol Greenwood around when Grain Brain hit the shelves. The purpose of this was to force the media to hear two stories. Lowry cited a CBC report that interviewed Perlmutter and Greenwood for equal amounts of time as evidence of the efficacy this strategy had with the media. They also prepared other associations, such as the Dietitians of Canada, the Canadian Diabetes Association and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, for the publication of Grain Brain with key positive messaging to distribute through their social media and other public-facing channels.
In the end, Perlmutter still got plenty of airtime (making it all the way to Dr. Oz), but she said the institute’s efforts helped the book have less impact on the Canadian media than Wheat Belly did. Lowry introduced a chart that showed the number of headlines given to Grain Brain versus positive grain messaging and it was indicative of a measure of balance brought to the coverage.
The key issues the institute is fighting are what she termed the concept of FrankenWheat, Wheat Weight and Gluten Free=Healthy. The non-profit’s next campaign may focus on the farmer as a hero and the farm-to-table movement.
The Healthy Grains Institute is guided by an independent and multidisciplinary scientific advisory council but is financially backed by industry partners, including the Canadian National Millers Association, BAC, Canada Bread, Weston Bakeries, Grain Growers of Canada, Alberta Wheat Commission and Grain Farmers of Ontario.
Rob Kowal is the president of Kriscor & Associates, a company that helps food manufacturers add ingredients that increase the nutritional profile of their products. This involves much research into what consumers are looking for in their food, and his presentation set out to answer the question of whether or not gluten-free is here to stay (yes it is, he said, but there are other things on the horizon).
|The perception that gluten-free automatically means a product is healthier is one of the myths the Health Grains Institute is focused on dispelling. A treat is still a treat, gluten-free or not.
Kowal first told a personal story of reading Wheat Belly, identifying with the symptoms described in the book and deciding to stop eating gluten. He has been on an gluten-free diet for over a year and says it has remedied his ailments. He identifies as gluten-intolerant, and was never tested for celiac disease. He became somewhat of the prime example during the afternoon of anecdotal evidence that the scientific community should not ignore, and stood as proof that there are many other people who have found relief from physical and mental symptoms by not eating gluten.
“There is something to some of this gluten-free [debate] in that we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said, pointing to new research out of Australia suggesting that perhaps as much as 50 per cent of the population studied has gluten sensitivity markers in their genetics. Kowal predicted that the gluten-free market will continue to grow at double-digit rates for the next five years before it potentially plateaus.
Kowal identified three overarching global consumer trends: health/freshness, convenience and value. Global obesity and its associated diseases is still an enormous challenge societies are grappling with. The baby boomers still have a lot of purchasing power and they are primarily interested in gut health, disease prevention and anti-aging products.
“The digestive gut health category is huge,” he said, and noted the yogurt manufacturers as leaders in capitalizing on this with probiotics. There is also a big interest in low-glycemic products.
Baby busters (people born between 1966 and 1971 as defined by Statistics Canada) also can influence through decisions to become vegetarian or to follow other specialty diets.
Consumers are more educated these days because of all the information on the Internet, he said. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. Either way, they lack trust and confidence in Big Food. Kowal’s research indicates that consumers do not feel the food industry is doing a good job of giving them the healthy, safe, fresh food they are looking for. The characteristics consumers are seeking seem to be high fibre, whole grains, gluten-free, low carbohydrate, pre- and probiotics, low sodium, low sugar, natural (organic) and value/cost. Yet, of course, taste is still king, he said. One of the barriers to healthy eating is still the perception that it won’t taste good.
Big Food has been under attack, he said, and the media doesn’t help but rather hinders by continuing to confuse consumers with headlines that are out of context. He points to this rather comedic example from the Telegraph: “EU bans claim that water can prevent hydration.”
You wouldn’t want to take that headline at face value.
The Canadian voice for celiac disease
Sue Newell is an education and communications consultant for the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA). The CCA is a consumer advocacy group and endorses the Gluten-Free Certification program for food manufacturers.
Newell, who has celiac disease, shared that gluten-free shoppers are a very loyal group but making their products is not to be taken lightly. It’s a significant commitment that requires proper procedures to ensure a safe food supply.
She outlined some of the recent research the CCA is looking at. Research in Finland is suggesting that two per cent of seniors have celiac disease, and this has raised the question of whether there is an age component to developing the condition. Celiac disease is found worldwide, except in Japan where she said they don’t seem to have a genetic basis for it.
The CCA found that diagnosis rates are still “abysmal,” with 10 to 12 years being the average time. Sometimes early onset osteoporosis leads to a diagnosis, because celiac disease interferes with the way the body absorbs calcium. Iron absorption is also a concern for this group. Importantly, she advised that parents should not put their children on a gluten-free diet without having them tested for the disease first. If a test is not done, the damage will have to be recreated later by consuming gluten to make a diagnosis.
There has been debate about people with other conditions such as autism or other autoimmune conditions responding well to gluten-free diets. The links are “tenuous,” said Newell, and there is “something interesting going on, but we don’t know what.”
Newell wrapped up her presentation by reviewing the changes to the definition of gluten-free in 2012 by Health Canada. Gluten-free is now defined as a food for special dietary use. Products labelled gluten-free cannot contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten, or 20 milligrams per one kilogram. The maximum daily safe amount of gluten that someone with celiac disease can consume is 10 to 15 milligrams, said Newell, which amounts to crumbs and airborne gluten. For people with celiac disease, a little bit really does matter.
A matter of public health
Lynn Garison, MHSc. and RD, works as a public health nutritionist in chronic disease prevention for the Halton Region Health Department. She was joined by Uma Sebastiampillal, RD, who works for Ontario public health in the department of healthy eating programming.
Currently, there is a big emphasis on public health because previous campaigns have not effectively made changes in the prevalence of some chronic diseases, said Garison. The basis of their work is always Canada’s Food Guide because it is the best tool they have, she said.
“It’s based on science and allows for people in a population to achieve nutritional health and prevent diseases.”
The foundation of the food guide places a heavy focus on a plant-based diet. It is believed that following its nutritional guidelines helps prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and some kinds of cancer. She noted it takes years to get new initiatives off the ground.
Sebastiampillal covered Halton’s Eat Smart program, which is an award of excellence that recognizes and promotes food premises that meet exceptional standards in nutrition, food safety and environmental factors like being smoke-free. The program started in recreational centres and new standards are being created that will apply to workplaces as well, so vendors will be able to apply the same standards to both.
Message from the president
Paul Hetherington, president and CEO of the BAC, shared the last words of the day. On gluten-free, he said “it’s opportunities as well as challenges” and that it is clear there is a “lack of consensus from health professionals on what direction to go.”
Causation by correlation is an issue the bakery industry faces, he noted. Research is still in the early stages.
Considering that, as Hetherington stated, wheat consumption in Canada has dropped 10 per cent in the past decade, what will the future hold? What will the emerging research have to say about gluten? The baking industry needs to continue to educate themselves. It is critical to stay abreast of the high quality information and know what may be the misinformation, because your customers are getting a mix of both.
Editor’s note: Please see editor’s letter on page 6 for commentary and coverage of the debate on industry-funded research and public perception that occurred during the Q and A.