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Gluten-free diets and the mythologies surrounding them

gluten freeThis week’s column is guaranteed to generate controversy. There will be all sorts of anecdotes from people who say they have lost weight, gained energy and just feel better after eliminating wheat. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear claims that Lou Gehrig’s ALS was caused by eating Wheaties. And I’m sure I will be urged to just try a wheat-free diet instead of looking at the scientific literature.

Gluten-free diets and the mythologies surrounding them

You will never see Novak Djokovic’s picture on a box of Wheaties. Djokovic is a super tennis player and is easily in the same league as the athletes who have adorned the Wheaties box since 1934 when Lou Gehrig first urged us to try the Breakfast of Champions: “There’s nothing better than a big bowl of Wheaties with plenty of milk or cream and sugar.” Djokovic would disagree. No Wheaties for this champion. Diagnosed as “gluten intolerant” by his nutritionist, Djokovic has given up all foods that contain gluten, the mixture of proteins found mostly in wheat, barley and rye.

He claims that he feels “fresher, sharper and more energetic.” So how exactly was Djokovic diagnosed, given that there is no known test for gluten intolerance, aside from the variety known as celiac disease, which Djokovic does not have?

Djokovic’s “nutritionist” asked him to stretch out his right arm while placing his left hand on his stomach. He then pushed down on the tennis champion’s right arm and told him to resist the pressure, which he was able to do. Next, Djokovic was asked to hold a slice of bread against his stomach with his left hand while the nutritionist again tried to push down on his outstretched right arm. This time, he was able to push it down easily. The demonstration, Djokovic was told, showed that he was sensitive to gluten, which is why he had suffered so many mid-match collapses in his career.

Such a test, often referred to as “applied kinesiology,” is often used by “alternative” practitioners to diagnose allergies and nutritional deficiencies, as well as to promote the sale of “energizing” bracelets.

It has zero scientific validity, but that doesn’t mean that Djokovic doesn’t suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The correlation with the test may be accidental, but the condition may be real. Djokovic is convinced that avoiding gluten is a factor in his improved play and is not bashful about recommending that everyone give “gluten-free” a shot. And he is not alone. Others who sing the praises of a gluten-free lifestyle include such icons of science such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Russell Crowe and Bill Clinton.

And then there is Dr. William Davis whose book Wheat Belly paints a picture of modern wheat as a satanic grain responsible for diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, cataracts, wrinkles, rashes, neuropathies, vitiligo, hair loss and schizophrenia — along with “man breasts,” “bagel butt” and of course, “wheat belly.”

If you are scientifically minded, it is worthwhile to read this book, just to see how masterfully Davis blends cherry-picked data, inflammatory hyperbole, misused science, irrelevant references and opinion masquerading as fact into a recipe for a cure-all.

Some of the “science” is just absurd. He talks about how wheat DNA has been mutated by exposure to sodium azide, and then points out that “the poison control people will tell you that if someone accidentally ingests sodium azide, you shouldn’t try to resuscitate the person because you could die, too, giving CPR.” The fact that sodium azide is a toxic chemical has nothing to do with its use in inducing mutations in genes. There is no azide in the product and inducing mutations to achieve beneficial traits is a standard technique used by agronomists.

Davis’s argument for wheat-causing osteoporosis is equally bizarre. He describes how wheat can give rise to sulphuric acid when it is metabolized. This is indeed correct. One of the amino acids in wheat protein, cysteine, does end up releasing some sulphuric acid in the body. And the body does use phosphates from bone to neutralize excess acid. The amount of acid released into the bloodstream from wheat is trivial; yet Davis calls it an “overwhelmingly potent acid” that rapidly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases.” Poppycock. (Appropriately, that term originates from the Dutch term for “soft dung”.)

That, though, isn’t the worst of it. Davis panics readers with totally irrelevant statements about sulphuric acid causing burns if spilled on the skin. Get it in your eyes and you will go blind. True, but what does that have to do with traces formed in the blood from cysteine? Sulphuric acid in acid rain erodes monuments, kills trees and plants, Davis informs us. Yes it does. But linking this to eating wheat is an example of mental erosion. Davis also claims that proteins in wheat break down to peptides that have opiate-like activity and lead to wheat addiction. If that were true, we had better avoid spinach, soybeans, meat, dairy and rice, because these also contain the same protein fragments.

Davis also claims substantial weight loss by avoiding wheat. “If three people lost eight pounds, big deal,” he says. “But we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of people losing 30, 80, 150 pounds.” Really? Where is this documented? It isn’t surprising, though, that some people do lose weight on the “Wheat Belly” diet, given that cutting out wheat products results in a reduced caloric intake.

While wheat is not the great devil responsible for the plethora of ailments claimed by Davis, it is not completely innocent either.

“Non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” in which various symptoms resolve when gluten is eliminated from the diet, in spite of negative blood tests and negative biopsies for celiac disease, may affect as much as five to 10 per cent of the population.

Most of the evidence, though, is anecdotal; and similar improvements in health are described by people who avoid artificial sweeteners, shun MSG, eat only raw foods, engage in auto-urine therapy or walk barefoot to soak up the earth’s energy.

There is also accumulating evidence that improvements in health by avoiding gluten have nothing to do with gluten but rather with “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols” dubbed FODMAPs. These wheat components are poorly absorbed, and travel through to the colon where they provide a scrumptious meal for the bacteria that live there.

The problem is that these bacteria produce copious amounts of gas that distend the gut and cause pain as they dine on the FODMAPs. Unfortunately, other foods, including many fruits and vegetables, also contain these troublesome sugars, so a low-FODMAP diet is difficult to follow.

In the meantime, Novak Djokovic is winning titles and is winning other athletes over with his gluten-free diet.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how he would perform if somebody managed to sneak some gluten into his food?

I also wonder how Lou Gehrig would have done had he traded in his Wheaties for Rice Chex or Cornflakes.

I suspect just as well.

Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Is it true that some candies are coloured with insect extract?

nutrafruitYes some candies and other foods can be coloured with cochineal extract which is an approved food additive. Hernan Cortez was the first European to learn about this colourant when he became intrigued by the beautifully colored Aztec fabrics. He learned that the source of the dye was what appeared to be seeds on a cactus plant. But closer scrutiny revealed that they were not seeds at all, they were little bugs. Today we know them simply as “cochineal” and the dye they yield as “carmine.”. Montezuma was so fond of red robes produced from carmine dyed fabric, that he imposed a tax upon his subjects that had to be paid in dried cochineal bugs

It is the pregnant female insect that produces the brilliant red dye which became the first product ever exported from the old world to the new. Soon Europeans were dying their wool and silk with the insect extract. Maybe the most memorable use of cochineal red was in the bright scarlet colors for which the Gobelin tapestries of Paris became famous.

Producing the dye was not an easy business. The female insects which feed on the red cactus berries and concentrate the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae, are scraped off the cactus and dumped into hot water where they instantly die. They are then dried in the sun and crushed into a powder. This can then be added to water or to a water-alcohol mixture for dying purposes. For fabrics, a mordant such as alum, which binds the color to the material is often used. Carminic acid, the active coloring agent, is one of the safest dyes that exist. It is commonly used in foods and cosmetics. Candies, ice cream, beverages, yogurt, lipstick and eye shadow can all be colored with cochineal.

Allergies are possible but are rare. There have been case reports about reactions to Campari, pink popsicles, maraschino cherries and red lipstick, but these are less frequent than reactions to other components in foods and cosmetics. In one instance, a little boy’s face swelled when he was kissed by his loving grandmother. It seems he had been sensitized to carmine probably through food or candies and reacted to the coloring in the lipstick. When reactions do occur they tend to be in the form of hives and swelling although one case of anaphylactic reaction to Campari-Orange has been reported.

The cochineal insects are very small. It takes about 70,000 females to produce a pound of dye. The males are quite useless in this quest. Like the males of most species, they are duller than the females. They are also rare and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible.. So how are they separated? Well, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. When the cactus is disturbed, the males scoot, but the females cannot escape. They are scraped off, destined to color our cherry or strawberry ice cream. I know that many of you may not find the prospect of ice cream colored with bug juice appetizing, but it is an effective and safe dye. And of course, it’s all natural.

Joe Schwarcz

Odour Removal

ageless fantasyOdour is big business.  Both producing it and eliminating it.  While perfume and toiletry companies battle to churn out novel fragrances to entertain our olfactory receptors, the huge odour control industry strives to protect us from the assault of nasty scents.  This is actually a greater challenge.  In the perfume trade you can get away with some inventive advertising and fanciful claims, but when it comes to eliminating odours, well, it isn’t hard to tell if a product works or not.

Bad smells are not rare.  Pet urine, garbage, manure, sewage, mildew, sweat and the toilet bowl all waft undesirable fragrances into the air.  How do you get rid of them?  There are several options.  The odour can be masked by a more powerful one, which is essentially what floral scented air fresheners do.  Or the smelly molecules can be removed from the air.  Air purifiers pass the air through activated carbon filters which can bind smelly compounds.  Zeolites (aluminosilicate minerals) have an amazing ability of adsorbing molecules to their surface and are available in various formats.

Chemical reactions can also be used.  Fish odour on the hands is due to chemicals called amines.  But if reacted with citric acid in lemon juice, they form salts that do not become airborne.  Washing hands with lemon juice therefore eliminates fishy aromas.  Many undesirable smells, such as that of spoiled food, are due to organic acids, and can be neutralized by baking soda.  Fragrant molecules in the air can also be destroyed by means of a chemical reaction.  Ozone generators produce ozone gas which can destroy smelly compounds in the air.  The smell of smoke after a fire yields to ozone.  Certain enzymes produced by bacteria can also chew up foul compounds.  Most pet odour eliminators are bacterial concoctions.

Molecules can also be removed from the air by interacting with other volatile substances in such a way that the resulting complex is no longer volatile.  Cyclodextrin, the active ingredient in products like Febreze, is a large molecule made of glucose units joined in a ring.  Malodorous compounds are entrapped in the ring, and the cyclodextrin-smelly molecule complex, because of the extra mass, now settles out of the air.  Some essential oils from plants can also interact with volatile compounds in this fashion and many smell “neutralizers” are based on this principle.

But there is more to essential oils.  Some can bind to receptors in our nose without triggering any action, and in the process block other molecules from interacting with the receptor.  Sort of like the wrong key fitting a lock without being able to unlock it, but preventing the right key from being inserted.  There has been a great deal of research trying to find specific essential oils to block specific smells, with some success.  Unfortunately the information is proprietary and companies will not reveal exactly what oils they use, but the results can be effective in controlling bad smells emanating from pig manure, landfills and sewage treatment plants.

Sometimes odour control products and perfumes can work hand in hand.  The Harvey Prince Company, a New York based perfume manufacturer, claims to have come up with just such a happy union in “Ageless Fantasy,” a perfume having the “smell of youth.”  I bet you sniff a scam coming up.  But maybe not.  At least, not a total scam.  The whole idea is based on the notion that as we age our body chemistry changes, and we produce novel compounds.

Japanese researcher, Shinichiro Haze analyzed the scents emanating from shirts worn for three days by subjects ranging in age from 26 to 75.  One particular compound stood out.  2-Nonenal, with an odour described as greasy, grassy, “old book,” or “old person” was more prominent in the elderly.  Subsequent research revealed that it was the product of bacterial action on vaccenic and palmitoleic acids, both of which are found in sweat and increase with age.

Armed with this knowledge, Harvey Prince developed “Ageless Fantasy” with hopes of neutralizing the scent of 2-nonenal.  Chemically destroying a scent is not in the realm of a perfume, however, masking one is.  But the company wanted something more than just a masking smell.  It wanted a youthful fragrance.  Previous research had indicated that the scent of grapefruit was associated with youth.  Could there be some mix of plant fragrances that both blocked 2-nonenal and optimized the youth effect?  In an intriguing experiment women were anointed with different scents while a panel of men judged their age.  The scents of apple, pink grapefruit, pomegranate, mango and pineapple consistently made the men underestimate the age of the wearer.  Floral fragrances like jasmine and cherry blossom triggered happy emotions.  Feelings of youth and excitement were attributed to musk and vanilla.

So Harvey Prince blended all these, plus more, in Ageless Fantasy and sprinkled it on women.  Men were then invited for a sniff test.  And the results, we’re told, were quite exciting.  The testers judged the women wearing Ageless Fantasy to be eight years younger than their chronological age.

I’m not sure what we can make of all this, because the research hasn’t been published.  Did they test to see if the scent of pure 2-nonenal was masked?  Did they use controls?  Did they determine how the men guessed ages in the absence of a perfume?  Maybe men are polite when asked to judge a lady’s age.  Or maybe any perfume would provoke similar results.  Who knows?  But for $120, you can try your own experiment.  Let’s face it, getting older stinks.  While a perfume can’t turn back the clock, it may trick others into believing that you had a dip in the fountain of youth.

Joe Schwarcz

Joe Schwarcz: Not all facts are created equal

pentagonI often ask myself questions. “Is that a fact?” is perhaps the one that crops up most frequently. That’s because no day goes by without someone soliciting my opinion about an item they have come across on the web, read in some publication, seen on TV or heard from a friend. Here’s a sampling:

“The Pentagon is developing a virus that can be spread in the Middle East to prevent people from developing extreme religious views.” “Aspartame causes multiple sclerosis.” “Surgical dilation of veins that drain blood from the brain cures multiple sclerosis.” “Radiation from the Fukushima accident in Japan is killing North Americans.” “A Himalayan salt bath removes toxins from the body.” “Colon cleansing removes toxins from the body.” “Titanium dioxide in cheese causes cancer.” “Drinking alkaline water cures cancer.” “Our Creator made a perfect food in the super-grain, Salvia Hispanica.” “Eating any grain destroys your brain.” “Gluten causes autism.” “Vaccines cause autism.” “Global warming is based on erroneous data.” “Evolution is just a theory.” “Genetically modified crops kill bees.” “Cellphones kill bees.” “Neonicotinoid insecticides kill bees.” “The peer-reviewed literature is often faulty.”

So, are these facts? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, yes.

The next question of course is, “How do I know?”

Indeed, how do we know anything when it comes to science? There’s no simple answer, because we rely on a combination of experience, plausibility based on established principles and, of course, peer-review. The latter is widely regarded as the cornerstone for building scientific knowledge, but the reliability of the system is increasingly being called into question. In the peer-review process, an editor sends a submitted paper to usually two or three “peers” who are experts in the field. They come back with criticisms, requests for revision and sometimes even ask for parts of the work to be repeated. The identity of the reviewers is not revealed to the authors of the paper.

After some back and forth, often some rewriting, the paper is published if the editorial staff is convinced the reviewers’ comments have been properly addressed. While top notch journals such as Science, Nature, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine can in general be trusted for publishing papers that have been extensively reviewed by highly competent experts, faulty or fraudulent research can still slip through. That was the case with Andrew Wakefield’s notorious 1998 paper in The Lancet alleging a cause and effect relationship between vaccines and autism. In contrast to these top tier publications, the world is now flooded with less rigorous “open access” journals that are available to all without a subscription. All expenses are paid up front by the researchers who would like to see their work in print.

Many of these journals have questionable peer-review processes, as has now been exquisitely pointed out by a purposely flaw-ridden paper submitted to 255 open access journals to gauge how many would publish it uncritically. A frightening 157 accepted it for publication! It seems if you don’t pay for a subscription, you can’t get the same quality. Of course it would have been interesting to submit the spoof paper to top notch journals to see how many of those would reject it. Dr. John Ioannidis, a study design expert at Stanford University, believes that many lower tier traditional journals would also have been taken in by the hoax and that a large percentage of all published studies are at least somewhat unreliable. Nevertheless they get referenced and get woven into the fabric of science. That’s why many pet theories can be backed up by cherry-picking peer-reviewed references.

In science we don’t cherry pick. We shake the tree, collect all the cherries, mash them together and then taste. And that’s just what we have asked our speakers at this year’s Lorne Trottier Science Symposium to do. They are all experts at shaking. The above mentioned Ioannidis is a professor of medicine at Stanford whose paper on Why Most Published Research Findings are False has been the most-accessed article in the history of the Public Library of Science. He has been dubbed by the prestigious Atlantic magazine as “one of the most influential scientists alive.”

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta whose book, The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness, is an entertaining and highly informative romp through the battlefield where good and bad science are engaged in fierce combat.

Dr. Eugenie Scott is an anthropologist who has forged a remarkable career as executive director of the National Center for Science Education in the U.S. with a particular specialty in explaining evolution to the public. She contends that proponents of antievolutionism and climate change denial use remarkably similar approaches to promote their views.

And speaking of denial, we come to Michael Specter, famed staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the bestseller Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Specter is also well-known for his detailed profiles of such celebrities as Lance Armstrong and Dr. Mehmet Oz. He is troubled by the fact that rapid technological advances have been met not just with skepticism but with denialism. No matter how powerful the data, people refuse to accept facts they don’t happen to like while accepting myths they like as facts.

No reservations, but early birds do get the best seats. Don’t expect, however, to be privy to any magical revelations about optimizing your health or eliminating scientific illiteracy. There aren’t any. But do expect a highly entertaining and educational evening as our speakers sift fact from myth, while recognizing that any conclusion is open to change as new knowledge accumulates. Science is not a collection of unalterable truths and certainty is elusive. And that’s a fact!

The symposium takes place at the Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke St. W., at Mansfield St. Scott and Specter speak on Monday starting at 5:30 p.m.; Ioannidis and Caulfield speak on Tuesday, also at 5:30 p.m. Q&A follows the presentations. Details: www.mcgill.ca/science/events/trottier-symposium.

 

Joe Schwarcz

Dr. Michael Greger–What do we make of him?

Dr. GregerA while ago I came across videos by Dr. Michael Greger. I was impressed by his ability to produce these 3-4 minute features every day. The science was sound and the production values high. I started to watch every day and it soon became clear that there was an agenda here. Every video either spoke about the benefits of some plant component in the diet or the harm caused by some chemical in animal products. It turns out that Dr. Greger has swallowed the vegan philosophy hook, line and sinker; not that there’s anything wrong with that. He promotes veganism with religious fervour and has forged a career speaking on health issues, including guesting on the Dr. Oz Show. Surely that is the ultimate recognition of scientific expertise! He also was an expert witness in on Oprah’s behalf when she was sued by meat ranchers for defaming hamburger. Dr. Greger claims to donate all profits from books and speaking engagements to charity, certainly a noble commitment.

You will never see Dr. Greger refer to a study that shows anything positive about meat, but you will see plenty of studies that point out the pitfalls of consuming animal products. While there is some zealotry here, the studies that Dr. Greger enthusiastically talks about are from respected journals and merit our attention. I think his videos are worth watching, but keep in mind that there is some cherry picking of data. Of course that doesn’t mean the cherries he picks are rotten; they’re fine. Here is his latest; you can also sign up for a free subscription to his daily videos.

http://nutritionfacts.org/video/eggs-choline-and-cancer/?utm_source=NutritionFacts.org&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=fdde153539-RSS_VIDEO_DAILY&utm_term=0_40f9e497d1-fdde153539-23329237

Joe Schwarcz

How do we know what we know?

question markHow do we know what we know when it comes to science? There’s no simple answer here, because we rely on a combination of experience, plausibility based on established principles, and of course peer-review. The latter is widely regarded as the cornerstone for building scientific knowledge, but the reliability of the system is increasingly being called into question.

While top notch journals such as Science, Nature, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine can in general be trusted for publishing papers that have been extensively reviewed by highly competent experts, faulty or fraudulent research can still slip through the vetting. That was the case with Andrew Wakefield’s notorious paper in The Lancet alleging a cause and effect relationship between vaccines and autism. But these days the world is flooded with scientific journals, with thousands declaring themselves to be “open access.” Anyone can read these, no subscription required. All expenses are paid up front by the researchers who would like to see their work in print. many of these journals have very questionable peer-review processes, as has now been exquisitely pointed out by a concocted flaw-ridden paper that was submitted to 255 open access journals to gauge how many would uncritically publish it. A frightening 157 accepted it for publication! As in other areas of life, with scientific publications, you get what you pay for.

Of course it would have been interesting to submit the spoof paper to top notch journals to see how many of those would reject it. Dr. John Ioannidis, a study design expert at Stanford University, who incidentally will be one of our speakers at the upcoming Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium on October 28 and 29, believes that many lower tier traditional journals would also have been taken in by the hoax and that a large percentage of all published studies are unreliable. Nevertheless they get referenced and get woven into the fabric of science. That’s why any pet theory can be backed up by cherry-picking peer-reviewed references. A proper evaluation of scientific and health issues requires searching and digging and sifting and consulting before coming to a conclusion. That’s just what I and my colleagues at the McGill Office for Science and Society try to do, recognizing that any conclusion is open to change as new knowledge accumulates. Science is not a collection of unalterable truths and certainty is elusive. Of that, I am certain.

Fake Cancer Study Spotlights Bogus Science Journals:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131003-bohannon-science-spoof-open-access-peer-review-cancer/

Joe Schwarcz

Bugs Among the Berries

bugsIn general, I find “Center for Science in the Public Interest” to be a very reputable organization and I always enjoy reading “Nutrition Action,” their flagship publication. I usually find myself in agreement with Michael Jacobson, the microbiologist who has been the Center’s guiding light since 1977. Michael has been vocal about what he sees as the unnecessary use of food dyes, chemicals that really serve only a cosmetic purpose, often just aiming to increase the appeal of foods of low nutritional quality. He’s right. Do we really need multi coloured fruit loops “and lollypops in every colur of the rainbow? Or yogurts that give the impression of having more fruit than they actually contain? In a recently circulating email Michael takes on Dannon over this issue. It goes like this: If you eat Dannon’s Fruit on the Bottom” Strawberry, Raspberry, Cherry, or Boysenberry yogurt, or the Strawberry variety of Dannon’s Oikos Greek yogurt, you are eating carmine—an extract made from the dried and pulverized dead bodies of the cochineal insect. That dye is also used in two flavors of Dannon’s Light and Fit Greek line, as well as in six of its Activia yogurts! Using red food dye of any kind in these products is deceptive, since consumers rightly expect that the pink or red color in their strawberry, raspberry, cherry, or boysenberry yogurt comes from the fruit pictured on the label. And not some extract made from six-legged creepy crawlies. But it certainly saves Dannon money by replacing berries or cherries with a food coloring. For most people, carmine is safe. But for a small number of consumers, it can be a serious problem. Some experience hives after consuming products with carmine. Others have more potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock. At the very least, Dannon should indicate on labels that carmine comes from an insect. Vegetarians who don’t have a dictionary handy would be especially interested to know. If Dannon thinks its yogurt is insufficiently pink or red, they should use more strawberries, raspberries, cherries, or boysenberries—and not allergenic extracts made from insects. Jacobson finishes by asking people to take a moment to sign a petition and tell Groupe Danone to put berries over bugs!
While I agree with the intent here, namely to eliminate the unnecessary use of food dyes, I think there is an attempt to gather steam for the petition by capitalizing on most people’s general revulsion of insects. The fact that carmine derives from an insect has no bearing on its use as a food dye. Nobody would object to using beet juice as a red food colouring. Why not? Because they deem it to be natural, and therefore safe. Why is an insect any less natural than a beet? It isn’t. But neither is that of any relevance. Food dyes are subject to the same regulations whether they are synthetic or natural. What matters is what the safety trials show, not the source of the dye. So while I agree that I would rather not see carmine used in food, it is because I don’t like deception, not because I’m repulsed by an insect extract. In any case, it isn’t as if there were ground up bugs in the product, the dye is a highly purified compound that has no insect properties.
Joe Schwarcz

Wheat Belly Gives Me a Bellyache

wheat belly bookDo you want to get rid of your “man breasts” or your “bagel butt?” How about diabetes or high cholesterol? Osteoporosis? Cataracts? Wrinkles? Neuropathies? Rashes? Psoriasis? Vitiligo? Hair loss? Schizophrenia? Easy. One simple solution to all these problems. Just eliminate wheat from your diet! And you know what else you will get rid of? The belly that hangs over your belt. Or as cardiologist William Davis calls it, your “wheat belly.” That also happens to be the title of his best selling book. Lose the wheat and lose the weight, says Davis in “Wheat Belly.”
Can this single dietary component be responsible for such a diversity of problems? Of course not. But if you are scientific minded, it is worthwhile to read this book just to see how masterfully Davis blends cherry-picked data, inflammatory hyperbole, misused science, irrelevant references and opinion masquerading as fact into a recipe for a cure-all. Some of the “science” is just absurd. He talks about how wheat DNA has been mutated by exposure to sodium azide, and then attempts to horrify people by pointing out that “the poison control people will tell you that if someone accidentally ingests sodium azide, you shouldn’t try to resuscitate the person because you could die, too, giving CPR. This is a highly toxic chemical.” The fact that sodium azide is a toxic chemical has nothing to do with its use in inducing mutations in genes. There is no azide in the product and inducing mutations to achieve beneficial traits is a standard technique used by agronomists.
Davis’ argument for wheat causing osteoporosis is equally ridiculous. He describes how wheat can give rise to sulphuric acid when it is metabolized. This is indeed correct. One of the amino acids in wheat protein, cysteine, does end up releasing some sulphuric acid when it is metabolized. And the body does use phosphates from bone to neutralize excess acid. But the amount of acid released into the bloodstream from wheat is trivial. Still Davis calls it an “overwhelmingly potent acid” that rapidly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases. Poppycock. That though, isn’t the worst of it. Davis panics readers with totally irrelevant statements about putting sulphuric acid causing burns if spilled on skin. Get it in your eyes and you will go blind. True, but what does that have to do with traces formed in the blood from cysteine? Sulphuric acid in acid rain erodes monuments, kills trees and plants, Davis informs us. Yes it does. But linking this to eating wheat is an example of mental erosion.
While wheat is not the great devil responsible for the plethora of ailments claimed by Davis, it is not completely innocent either. There is no doubt that patients suffering from celiac disease must stay away from gluten, a set of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. There is also mounting evidence for the existence of a condition being referred to as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” in which various symptoms resolve when gluten is eliminated from the diet in spite of negative blood tests and negative biopsies for celiac disease. But at this point most of the evidence is anecdotal and you can hear about similar improvements in health from people who avoid artificial sweeteners, shun MSG, eat only raw foods, engage in “autourine therapy,” (don’t even ask) or walk barefoot to soak up the earth’s energy.
Davis has a shtick and is looking to capitalize on data that he has twisted to his advantage. He uses a standard technique of such profiteers, bamboozling people with complex terms and cherry-picked data to insinuate that the corporate world is profiting by addicting the public to dangerous foods. It isn’t surprising, though, that there are testimonials galore about losing weight on a wheat-free diet. Davis’ scheme basically translates to a low carb, low calorie diet. No miracle here. Wheat Belly’s claim of having found the secret to weight loss, the secret that has evaded thousands of researchers with far more expertise than Davis, gives me a belly ache.

Joe Schwarcz
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