Food in the US and Abroad: Wheat Gluten

I like food. I like to try different foods while travelling and write about them. I also have food sensitivities and allergies. While I’m in America, I’m very picky about what I eat because the American processed food is so horrible. Most of what I avoid are artificial ingredients. I think of myself as a “real foodist”. In America, that means doing most of my own cooking and reading labels scrupulously.

Normally, I also avoid wheat. I know its really trendy now, but about 14-15 years ago as a last ditch effort to deal with a chronic pain and fatigue diagnosis, I tried cutting wheat and dairy from my diet and it had a positive effect, reducing my pain and increasing my energy. I don’t care if I’m allergic, intolerant or celiac. I just like not being in pain. Every couple years, I try something again to see if its still a problem (or sometimes accidentally eat something).

However, I’ve found that travelling outside the US changes my food options very significantly. Not only do most other countries offer real food for cheaper than processed food (opposite of the US), but the candy, sweets, bread, and restaurant foods all tend to be made of more real ingredients than not. Plus the processes for preparing pre-made food are more likely to be recognizable as cooking instead of chemistry.

When I lived in China in 2007 I got homesick once and we went to an expat pizza joint. They imported their flour (this is relevant) because Chinese wheat has less gluten and makes bad pizza. I ate it anyway, and of course felt icky for days afterward. A few months later, in another homesick slump, I thought, to hell with it, I want a slice of chocolate cake. There was a bakery in my neighborhood that I passed all the time. I expected to feel sick, but didn’t care. Imagine my surprise when I didn’t feel sick!

I continued to be able to eat Chinese wheat products with no problem, but imported products were not ok. I even tried wheat again once I returned to the US and it was no go. I chalked it up to Chinese low gluten wheat and moved on.

A few years ago, I read some new research about the fermentation process of bread products no longer being used in the US. Back before huge factories made our food, bread dough was left to sit for hours (often 12-16) while it rose and was kneaded and the little yeast monsters broke down the sugars (and proteins) and made little air bubbles. Turns out the yeast also made the hard to digest wheat easier on the human gut, allowing us to extract more nutrients with fewer problems.

We stopped this process in the name of efficiency, and now can make a loaf of bread from start to finish in 40 minutes! We bleach and strip the flour then add nutrients back in so that it still comes out soft and tasty without the fermentation time, but gluten intolerance in the US is on the rise.

There isn’t yet any conclusive evidence as to why, or what can be done about it, which is why I don’t really care what my “diagnosis” is, and only how my body responds to the food I put in it.

When I first got here to Saudi, I went next door to get some shawarma and the guys brought us some complimentary baked bread thingies with like a chicken spinach filling. Not wanting to be rude, and not feeling able to explain the food sensitivity, I ate one. Again, no ill effects the next day. So I tried a few more wheat items with no problems.

Then I looked up wheat in Saudi and found that the government both claims great exports of wheat and is eliminating home grown wheat by 2016 in favor of importing wheat from a bunch of different countries (including the US, but I’m not sure what their stance on GMO’s is yet). No logic.

At some point I hope to experiment with baguettes in France, too.

I don’t avoid wheat to be trendy. When I quit wheat there were no alternatives on the market, no one had heard of gluten intolerance, waitresses offered me pancakes when I asked about wheat free breakfast options, and co-workers were astonished to learn there was wheat in birthday cake. I appreciate the new trend because it makes my options in the US broader, although I still read labels relentlessly because many companies use other ingredients I object to while claiming gluten free status.

The fact that I can enjoy bread products while overseas is pretty cool. Even nicer is the fact that I’ve grown accustomed to a largely bread free diet means that its still a treat rather than a staple. I don’t understand why I have problems with wheat products only in America. I’ve started to believe the problem for me isn’t the wheat (or at least if it is, then its a particular American mono-culture of wheat), but rather the processing. Until I find the answer, I just tell people I’m allergic to America. ;P

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2 thoughts on “Food in the US and Abroad: Wheat Gluten

  1. Pingback: A Weekend in Riyadh: The Globe Restaurant | Gallivantrix

  2. Bonnie has what I’ve started thinking of as a gluten sensitivity that thankfully seems to have lessened since she’s become healthier due to doctors’ treatments for Lyme and other issues. However, when she was having to be as gluten-free as possible it made for some very expensive grocery bills. Gluten-free bread was my largest complaint not so much for the price but for just how little bread was in a package.

    I realize living in the South makes following a diet far outside the norm more difficult and more expensive but it became financially unbearable in a short amount of time. Hopefully companies will either lower prices or provide more product in their offerings. I’m not holding my breath, however.

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