Michael Pollan talks about gluten

For the past twenty-five years, award winning journalist and lecturer Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.


This extract is taken directly from an interview which Michael Pollan had with Modern Farmer:

Modern Farmer: “I have to ask you about the gluten segment in Cooked, because I know that raised a lot of people’s hackles. You insinuate that gluten sensitivity is actually a psychological phenomenon for many people. What is the evidence for that?”

Michael Pollan: A lot of people really do have this condition, and it’s important to make clear that celiac disease is a real phenomenon that affects between one and two percent of the population. And for those people eating any kind of gluten is going to cause serious problems. And then you have a much larger group of people who are gluten intolerant. That’s where things get squishy. These are people who have trouble have trouble digesting gluten, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of medical problems as celiac disease does. Then you have people who are part of what I think is social contagion—people hearing about gluten as this great evil. We have this long history of looking for the evil nutrient to explain our unhappiness. That spotlight right now falls on gluten. It was on fat before, and for a long time, it was on sugar.

So in the middle though of that Venn diagram, you do have a group of people who have a real serious problem tolerating gluten. And that can be explained several ways. I’m not sure which way is the most important; they don’t contradict one another though, so it may be that all of them are true or partly true.

One is that we make bread differently than we used to. We leaven bread very quickly and use yeast to do it, rather than long sourdough fermentation. There is very good research from Italy to suggest that long sourdough fermentation breaks down the two peptides that are implicated in gluten intolerance. And that the sourdough process, basically the microbes in the sourdough starter, are putting out enzymes that are breaking down complex proteins and that’s what gluten is. So maybe the problem is that the way we are making bread is changing.

Theory number two is we are getting a lot more gluten in our diet then we used to. We get it not just from bread, but gluten is used in a great many processed foods to give them a stretchy or chewy quality. It’s a filler. So maybe we are being overexposed to gluten because we’re getting it completely unprocessed by microbes in many, many other foods.

The third is that disorders in our microbiome—the fact that our guts are not optimally healthy because of our fast-food diet—are leading to a whole range of problems. Gluten intolerance perhaps needs to be looked at along with the high rates of allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases, which have stumped many health experts. They are all way up. Peanut allergies are a great example. So we may have just a kind of general digestive malaise where our bodies are confused about who his friend and who is foe among all these nutrients and is just fighting these big proteins that should be regarded as friends.

All these theories may have part of the answer, but I have yet to see any research that tells me, “aha,” this is what it’s about.