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The Trouble With Bread: What I Discovered When I Tried to Get to the Bottom of My Gluten Intolerance

American bread is processed in a way that may be making us sick.

When I eat standard sliced American bread, I may as well be hung over. I get a stomachache, nausea and become generally exhausted, as if my body is trying to fight off the bread. But the symptoms vary in severity. Because of this, after intermittently giving up bread, I will think I have imagined it all, try to eat bread again, and get sick all over again.

It’s a delirious cycle of love and abuse, a drug I can’t give up. I often find the succulent morsels of a toasted honey wheat or raspberry jam-slathered brioche worth an evening holding my stomach, rocking on my bed.

I love bread so much, I allow myself to forget how bad I feel after eating it. But after about two blissful years of this denial, I finally decided to do something about it.

Until recently, the idea of not being able to eat wheat was preposterous. Bread has been a staple of human life for 10,000 years, since the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians discovered its ability to literally rise above other grains, thanks to this little protein called gluten.

“Gluten is the reason that wheat was able to conquer the planet,” food writer Michael Pollan, who explores the wonders of gluten in his most recent book, Cooked, told me. Gluten, which is a combination of the proteins gliadin and glutenin, gives wheat flour a certain elasticity when mixed with water that makes it easy to work with and helps hold pockets of air within the dough, allowing it to rise.

But gluten intolerance has become a significant health concern in just the past decade or so. Celiac disease, an extreme autoimmune reaction to gluten, has increased fourfold since the 1950s. And whereas wheat counts for one-fifth of the calories in the American diet, fully a third of American adults think they should stop eating it.

Which led me to the Gluten & Allergen Free Expo at a Marriott in South San Francisco. The place was circus-like, with vendors pulling acrobatic tricks with their words to draw in the expectant consumer crowd.

“This won our national Sophie award,” says one fiercely smiling woman, gripping a box of cookies and talking close to the face of a semi-interested passerby. “So for 2012, best snack food in the organic, gluten-free product line.”

Hordes of well-fed families pushed their way from booth to booth, brochures in hand and kids in tow. They shifted weight on weekend sneakers as vendors lured them with their unusual wares: Tapioca flour. Potato starch. Rice flour.

The “gluten-free” label has become one of the best ways to sell a product. The industry is worth upward of $4 billion, and is expected to exceed $6.6 billion by 2017. Many books, diets and self-proclaimed medical specialists have taken advantage of this new trend. It has become so trendy, in fact, that even gallons of milk, that contain no gluten to begin with, have started to get the “gluten-free” stamp.

If nothing else, the gluten-free industry has shown me where I am apt to find the notorious substance, which is often used as an additive or filler in otherwise wheat-less foods: salad dressings, soy sauce and other condiments, beer, some ice creams, even deodorant. But it is most common in wheat, barley and rye, and some say, oats.

But “gluten-free” doesn’t mean healthy. Cutting down on carbs can be great in general, but transitioning to these ultra-sweet, other refined flours, as wheat replacements often are, can actually be worse for you than the wheat itself (which, at least in its whole grain form, can be quite good for you).

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