A whopping 21 percent of Americans are currently making an active attempt to eat gluten-free, according to a Gallup poll published July 23. That dwarfs the 1 percent of the U.S. population diagnosed with celiac disease, the only medical condition that requires gluten-free products for someone with the disease to live a healthy life.
More and more Americans are on the anti-wheat warpath trend, as the label "gluten free" appears on everything from craft beer to cat food. For those with celiac disease, a life-threatening autoimmune disorder that destroys the gastrointestinal tract, going gluten-free is critical to avoid damage to the small intestine. For everyone else, though, it is an unnecessary, and potentially unhealthy diet.
The gluten-free industry
Such facts haven't stopped the food industry from taking advantage of the trend, and gluten-free products have grown to represent a $9 billion market in 2014, according to the Burdock Group, which specializes in food market research, among other issues.
Gluten-free foods, especially refined foods processed to make them gluten-free (many made with potato starch or rice starch), cheat the consumer out of the many health benefits of whole grains — such as wheat, barley and rye — and can be seriously lacking in critical nutrients such as fiber iron, zinc, folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus fiber and iron.
A whole grain contains all three parts of a grain: the bran, germ and endosperm, as opposed to a refined grain which only contains the endosperm. The nutritional riches are mostly found in the bran and the germ. Decades of research, conducted predominantly on gluten-containing whole wheat, according to Joanne Slavin a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, has found that people who eat whole grains, containing all three parts of the grain, are less likely to be overweight or have diabetes, heart disease or even many cancers, including colorectal cancer, and head and neck cancer in women.
“Whole grain cereals can protect the body against the increased oxidative stress that is involved and/or associated with all the major chronic diseases: metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular disease,” according to a comprehensive review in Nutrition Research Reviews. “Whole-grain cereals are good sources of antioxidants (click here to see the thirty-one compounds or groups of compound in a drawing of a whole wheat grain). Some specific mechanisms are today well recognized. For example, food structure influences satiety and the slow release of sugars recommended for type 2 diabetes. Dietary fiber improves gut health, and the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of most phytochemicals can help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of scientists convened to offer nutrition recommendations for Americans to the federal government, said dietary patterns of the American public are suboptimal and are causally related to poor individual and population health and higher chronic disease rates.” The scientists recommended diets higher in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than is currently consumed.
“Across all ages and both sexes, the US population does not meet the goal for whole grain intake, The inadequate intake of whole grains leads to underconsumption of several … nutrients of public health concern. “
Most gluten-free processed foods are not made with nutrient-rich, health-protecting whole grains. Furthermore, the gluten-free label has very little to do with the nutritional value of a food. French fries, and many candies, for example, are naturally gluten-free.
People without celiac disease who follow a gluten-free diet (many of whom aren't even aware of what gluten is or what contains gluten, according to a hilarious recent Jimmy Kimmel piece) have been known to cite numerous reasons for doing so. A common one is a feeling of lethargy or ill health that has come to be associated with eating gluten. However, the feeling of wellness that many attribute to the removal of gluten from their diets is more likely due to the absence of the refined carb- and sugar-laden snacks and desserts that happen to contain the protein. So why not simply remove those foods but keep the healthy gluten-containing foods?
If you are concerned that you may have celiac disease, you should have your doctor, preferably a gastroenterologist, perform an intestinal biopsy — and you shouldn't cut gluten until you know for sure that you need to.
Celiac disease cannot be self-diagnosed and a patient must be eating gluten for the disorder to be properly identified. Until then, you should treat the gluten-free trend as any other fad diet: Don't get sucked in by the hype.
There are very few foods that match the beautiful color and intense flavor of berries. And, fortunately, these fruits are nutrition superstars.
For many years, most berries were regarded as nutritionally inferior because of their lack of traditional essential nutrients such as vitamins A and C. But that was before scientists recently discovered the presence of large amounts of beneficial phytochemicals ("phyto" is Greek for plant).
Apparently, each berry contains at least 100 nutrients and phytochemicals, the plant compounds with potent powers of healing. Some of the most important phytochemicals in berries are antioxidants, powerful substances believed to reduce inflammation, improve immune function and help prevent heart disease and cancers.
Antioxidants are compounds that absorb oxygen free radicals -- molecules that cause oxidation in the body's cells. Scientists believe that these molecules cause most of the diseases of aging, such as immune system decline, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and neurological impairments affecting cognition and balance. Think of oxidation as being similar to rusting. Or imagine an apple slice turning brown. By simply adding lemon juice, an antioxidant, the apple's flesh stays fresh and prevents the browning or oxidation.
A similar thing happens in your body. Oxidation is constantly occurring in your cells because of environmental pollutants, smoking, exposure to the sun, heat generated through basic metabolic functioning, unhealthy diets and other factors. It takes a large supply of antioxidants to counter this. Berries have been found to have one of the highest antioxidant scores of all fruits and vegetables.h
But there are other good reasons to eat berries. The berry family contains 300 to 400 beneficial, disease-fighting chemicals. The phytochemicals in berries, depending on the type, also stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance cancer-fighting enzymes, positively influence hormone metabolism, have antibacterial and antiviral effects and may even reverse some aspects of brain aging.
The most potent and cherries (not technically a berry, but similar nutritionally) but all more potent than most other fruits. Their color is provided by one of the most powerful phytochemicals, called anthocyanins, which berries synthesize to protect themselves from the elements.
Anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol (polyphenols are also found in other fruits and vegetables), reduce inflammation, according to a 2015 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which plays a role in protecting against cancers, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. They may also play a role in preventing risk of Alzheimers and Parkinson's Diseases, according to many years of animal research published in a 2014 article in Neural Regeneration Research.
Cranberries, may be responsible for helping to prevent urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, gum disease and even ear infections in children. Cranberries are also effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- and 20 percent of urinary tract infections are resistant to antibiotics. The phytochemicals in cranberries work by blocking the disease-causing bacteria and preventing it from adhering to human cell walls.
"There is strong experimental evidence that cranberry bioactives have favorable effects on blood pressure, glucose metabolism, lipoprotein profiles, oxidative stress, inflammation, and endothelial (the lining of blood vessels)," said Jeffrey Bloomberg, et al, in the journal, Advances in Nutrition. But all berries have strong health benefits.
A study published in 2014 in the Journal of Nutrition found a reduction in insulin resistance, especially with Anthocyanins (found in abundance in berries). According to the study, these benefits can be "found with intakes readily achieved in the diet." They may even improve bone density in women, according to a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Bone Mineral Research and a 2014 article in Osteoporosis International. This may be caused by their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may help prevent bone breakdown.
A study published in Neurology in 2012 found a high flavonoids diet (found in berries among other fruits and vegetables) was correlated with a reduction in the incidence of Parkinson's Disease in men.
New research has found that raspberries, blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries contain a phytochemical called resveratrol, also present in wine, which is thought to help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and is implicated as an important compound for health.
Strawberries contain large amounts of phytochemicals called ellagitannins, which are also in raspberries and blackberries. Studies at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition found those berries are capable of inhibiting a number of key steps in the development of cardiovascular disease and may have immense potential for the prevention and treatment of heart disease and stroke. Strawberries are also high in antioxidant Vitamin C and folic acid, important in preventing birth defects.
"Strawberries contain a variety of bioactive compounds that can promote longevity and quality of life. For humans, these compounds can act as antioxidants, serve as anti-inflammatory agents, improve cell to cell communication, cause cancer cells to die, detoxify carcinogens -- a number of benefits consistent with health and disease risk reduction." said Dr. Burton-Freeman at an American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics conference.
While most of what scientists know about berries has been determined in animal studies and in labs using cell cultures, new human studies are showing promising results.
I'm thrilled to be the bearer of good news: The Rose Park Farmer's Market is finally open Wednesday, May 6 from 3:00 to 7:00 pm. And even more delighted to tell you that asparagus** is on the menu. And what's better: it's locally grown and freshly picked by Jim and Alice, the owners of Anchor Nursery.
There will also be kale, spinach, lettuce, spring onions, bok choy, lots of bedding plants and cut flowers including tulips and lillies.
I'm taking advantage of the fresh asparagus myself and my Puree of Asparagus Soup with Tarragon is a favorite recipe of everyone who tries it. You can buy the fresh tarragon and thyme at the market too. I have many more favorite asparagus recipes, and more farmer's market recipes in my Diet Simple Farm to Table cookbook.
Puree of Asparagus Soup with Tarragon
By Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., RDN., L.D.
Author: “Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations”
This sublime, pale green soup may be served warm or cold.
Serves 8 to 10
2 pounds Asparagus, cleaned, tough ends removed, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
1 Tablespoon Canola Oil
1 Leak, cleaned and sliced, white and light green parts only
1 medium Onion, chopped
1 clove of Garlic, mashed
Pinch of Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
Vegetable Broth (see recipe) or Chicken Broth
2 Medium Potatoes, diced
1 Bay Leaf
A few sprigs of Fresh Thyme and Parsley
1 Tablespoon Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
Garnish: 1 Small Bunch Fresh Tarragon, chopped
Use the cleaned tough ends and scraps of the asparagus and leek. Add 1 onion, 1 garlic clove (or more), and 2 quarts of water. Other vegetables you happen to have could also be thrown in, such as a carrot and/or a celery stalk. Let simmer about 30 minutes and strain.
Clean the asparagus, break off tough ends. If you wish, peel the stalks for a more tender vegetable. Slice the asparagus stalks into approximately 1.5 inch pieces.
Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pan. Add the leak, onion and garlic and cook over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, the potatoes, and herbs and simmer about 30 minutes. Add half of the asparagus and simmer another ten minutes. Remove the herbs.
Using an immersible hand blender (ie, Cuisinart’s Smart Stick), puree the soup, add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, steam or broil the remaining asparagus for 5 minutes, until barely tender. Strain and cover in ice water to stop the cooking process and prevent limp, over-done asparagus.
Serve the soup, garnishing each bowl with the sliced asparagus and a pinch of chopped fresh tarragon.
**Asparagus is packed with nutrients. Low in calories, it’s an excellent source of folic acid, Vitamin C, Thiamin, and Vitamin B6. Asparagus, like other fruits and vegetables, is sodium-free, and contains no fat or cholesterol. It is an important source of potassium and many nutrients for boosting your immune system, preventing heart disease, lowering blood pressure and even preventing cancer. Asparagus has the highest levels of Glutathione, a potent cancer fighter , according to the National Cancer Institute. Asparagus is also high in Rutin, valuable in strengthening the blood vessels.
Puree of Asparagus Soup with Tarragon is adapted from “The Vegetarian Feast” by Martha Rose Shulman, a cookbook I highly recommend.