Myth busting seminar delves into gluten-free
February 13, 2014
By Laura Aiken/Bakers Journal
Feb. 13, 2014, Toronto – Gluten-free is still the heavyweight champion of
the Canadian baking industry when it comes to the reigning topic in nutrition
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 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 a unique perspective to the
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 public 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, 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
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 some of it from
his own study subjects,
who may potentially be selected for having views favourable to his 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
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 grain
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
“Consumer consume headlines,” said Lowry. “Then take it as gospel
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 in close
timing to 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
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 will 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).
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
“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, or baby echoers, (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 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
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. Uma Sebastiampillal, RD, 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 through forums such as the
myth-busting seminar hosted by the BAC. It is critical to stay abreast of the
high quality information and the misinformation, because your customers are
getting a mix of both.
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