What ARE you eating?

Media influence rides a wave, in food as in everything else. Some years, all is doom and gloom, while other times we’re on the upswing. The popular book, Wheat Belly, caters to the gluten-free movement. And believe it or not  a gluten-free pizza makes good use of veggies in this non-wheat, no-meat version of everyone's favourite. Leslie Savage photo
Media influence rides a wave, in food as in everything else. Some years, all is doom and gloom, while other times we’re on the upswing. The popular book, Wheat Belly, caters to the gluten-free movement. And believe it or not a gluten-free pizza makes good use of veggies in this non-wheat, no-meat version of everyone’s favourite. Leslie Savage photo

By Leslie Savage

Media influence rides a wave, in food as elsewhere. Some years, all is doom and gloom, while other times we’re on the upswing. For instance:The 1950s — postwar exuberance sees cookbooks from Life extolling the virtues of glam Euro-imports such as truffles and snails as guests burble over cocktails at the barbeque.

The 60s — back to nature gloom after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Hippy communes burp their way through platefuls of beans ’n’ rice in gastronomic mimicry of the very real and effective marches for racial equality and sexual freedom.

The 70s and 80s: another upswing, a welcome invasion of ethnic foods as vets return from Viet Nam, Mexicans manage residency in California, and eastern Europeans escape the Iron Curtain.

The 90s: here comes Slow Food, a reaction against the fast food chains that are providing daily low-nutrition meals for millions of poor Americas. Dire warnings begin to emerge. Cooking shows abound; the Iron Chef glows as a new icon.

The 2000s: environmentalism and globalism come to the table with a burst of food enthusiasm unknown ever. Cookbooks, blogs and TV cookshows flourish. The raw food movement, pro and con carb diets, and a reaction against the Big Five food companies put Real Food on tables of the cognoscenti. (Mine included.)

So, when faced with a new theory about how eating grasshoppers or not eating pyschodynamic plant life will save the world, the skepticism antennae shoot up from behind the Savage eyeball.

Recently several newbies are on the block: The China Diet, recommending we give up meat; Wheat Belly saying we should eschew modern wheat; Sugar, Salt and Fat telling us the evils of the Big Five Food Baddies; and Cooking, which counters the objection to applying heat to what we consume.

Millions of readers, it seems, are salivating at the prospect of enhanced well-being via a change in diet.

One of the millions, it turns out, is my own darling spouse, who came home from a very lovely dinner with friends the other night with a copy of Wheat Belly. After one chapter he announced that from now on, he was giving up wheat. “The science is very compelling,” he said, “and the author is a cardiologist.”

Well. Right.

My mind reeled less at the arrogance of the assumption that I would acquiesce and instantly produce an entire range of wheatless delectables than at the prospect of dumping a cupboard full of unbleached flour, a lifetime of baking practice, and the welcome ease of an occasional spaghetti supper.

Wheat Belly is written by a Milwaukee cardiologist, William Davis, MD, himself a diabetic. The argument is based on the proven fact that wheat proteins have been genetically modified over the past 100 years in order to improve agricultural yield. The result, Davis says, is that proteins not found in traditional wheat stocks are now found in the new strains, and that some of these proteins are the source of celiac disease as well as irritants to the human system that produce, in many individuals, heartburn, diabetes, arthritis, allergies and more.

Checking the references for the first few sources of this scientific argument, my faith in Dr. Davis was only slightly undermined by the inconsistency of footnoting style in references in Chapter 2, but more seriously so by his somewhat narrow reading of the scientific data.

But at least the data is there. So many books about food rely entirely on anecdotal evidence, saying it’s too expensive to do tests that would prove a point. Well, yes, it is expensive to conduct scientific studies. But anecdotal evidence, while it may count as phenomenological data in social sciences, doesn’t cut it when it comes to nutrition, at least with me, most of the time. So kudos to Dr. Davis for including references, haphazardly cited or not.

The central argument of Wheat Belly addresses the hybridization of wheat. When different parent wheat stocks are joined, it seems that about 95% of the many proteins in wheat remain the same but 5% or so are different—and some of these are new, “found in neither parent,” and it is these that some researchers have found to be the same as the protein molecules that cause Celiac Disease. And in the past 100 years, virtually all commercially grown wheat varieties have been modified to increase yield, so that “ancient” wheat is no more, except in the fields of very specialized farmers.

However, these researchers don’t recommend, as Dr. Davis does, that we all give up wheat. They also found—and this isn’t mentioned in the book but is in the reference I looked up in the Journal of Theoretical and Applied Genetics, November 2010, that in some varieties of modified wheat, there are fewer, not more, of the proteins that irritate celiacs. So their conclusion is that it may be possible to breed wheat that contains less, not more, of the harmful proteins, and that we should be searching for these.

Rather than recommending that the whole world give up wheat, a staple dietary product in many countries, and the economic mainstay of millions of farmers, they more realistically conclude that further selection can produce wheat that would be less toxic to celiacs and presumably to the rest of us.

Well, a researcher’s solution — more research. As opposed to a doctor’s solution: eliminate the cause of the disease. No-one’s wrong.

But Wheat Belly’s insistence on only one solution—that we give up wheat altogether — is an extreme. Not for people who suffer from Celiac Disease, but possibly for the rest of us. In fact, the authors of new food fads are often zealots, and that’s what gives me pause.

Take the case of Alex Jamieson, the once-vegan leader who recently confessed that she craved and now eats meat, because she believed her health was suffering after 20 years of veganism. Her blog post led to an online battle involving insults more gargantuan than the supersized burgers in her one-time partner Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me. She was vilified by the vegan community on every ground possible — because she confessed that she believed her body needed the protein and fat that animal products provide. Veganism, for many, has less to do with health than with a specific sort of morality.

The reality is that to change one’s diet requires a huge commitment and intense discipline — the kind that isn’t often achieved only by health concerns. People need a cause, and following a specific diet needs zeal. For those who are seriously ill as a result of specific foods— including celiacs — we can only offer deep sympathy. It is hard, costly and time-consuming to live a wheat-free diet in a culture in which the staple for thousands of years has been bread.

That’s why no, I’m not going to go gluten-free, nor animal free. Yes, I’ll fry my fish in potato flour if that’s what it takes to keep peace in the household, and I’m pleased to make cottage cheese and salad available as alternate meals, but for me, pass the parmesan for the pasta please.

But for those who need or want to be gluten-free, here’s a recipe modified from Wheat Belly for an old favorite: pizza. In my trial dinner, your esteemed editor David R found it as like pizza as tofu is to a real beef burger, but my soon-to-be-wheatless spouse loved it.

Wheatless vegetarian pizza
You can’t pick up this crust with your fingers as you do a wheaten pizza, but it’s still very satisfying, and does look like a regular pizza.
You will need a round pizza pan 12 to 14” in diameter, preferably with holes in the bottom, parchment paper or tin foil, and a very hot oven — 425° F.

For the pizza crust
1 head cauliflower
¼ cup olive oil
2 eggs
¼ cup ground hazelnuts
2 tbsp potato flour
2 tbsp corn meal
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 tsp salt
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper

Use any toppings of your choice. For a vegetarian pizza I used
1 cup pure tomato sauce
1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp hot chili sauce
2 peppers, orange and red
1 cup grape tomatoes
1 cup thinly sliced onion
½ a small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
½ lb mushrooms
1 cup mozzarella
1 cup crumbled Harmonious Ewe goat feta
¼ cup parmesan cheese
8-12 fresh basil leaves

Steam the cauliflower until soft, then mash 3 cups of it, or put into a food processor and whiz.
Mix in the eggs, olive oil, hazelnuts, potato flour, corn meal and mozarella.
Add salt and pepper.
Put a large piece of parchment paper onto the pizza pan. You will need at least 2” extra at the edges. Put ½ tsp of olive oil in your palm and rub this over the paper where the pizza crust will go.
Dump the somewhat mushy crust mixture onto the parchment paper and spread it around so that you have a pizza crust looking mixture on the pizza pan. Since you have oil on your hands, use them to spread the “dough.”
Cook this at 400F for 30 minutes or until it starts to get brown around the edges.
Remove from the oven and let the crust cool on a rack if possible. When it’s cool, slide the paper with the crust on it off the pizza pan, so that it is now resting on the cooling grid with the paper attached to the bottom.
Invert the pizza pan over the top of the pizza crust, upside down, and grab both it and the crust-resting-on-paper-on rack. Flip the whole thing over so that the crust is now in the pizza pan with the paper on top. Gently peel off the paper. Now you have a crust in a pan, ready for toppings.

Heat the oven to 425. Oil a big cookie sheet and roast on it the grape tomatoes, cut in half, the thin slices of butternut squash, the mushrooms and the peppers. Set timer for 15 minutes; check the veggies and remove from oven any that are beginning to brown. The peppers will take longest; when they are blackened, remove from oven and put them in a paper bag. When peppers are cool, remove skin and seeds and tear into strips.
Meanwhile, slice the onion thinly and sauté it in 1 tbsp olive oil over very low heat until it is very soft, turns brown and is what’s called onion confit — onion jam.
Mix tomato sauce with oregano and chili sauce.
Grate mozzarella and parmesan, and crumble the feta.
Arrange toppings on the pizza crust with tomato sauce first, then veggies, the basil leaves, then cheeses.
Bake for 20 minutes in hot oven, 425 F, or until cheeses melt and begin to bubble.

NB: for a more traditional pizza, use any topping of your choice.

Many people have asked me for gluten-free recipes. Several good gluten-free cookbooks are available, and it’s a fair assumption that anyone cooking for a celiac or wheat-sensitive person has consulted these.

It’s not so much recipes you need as an appreciation of the extreme difficulty of avoiding wheat completely in this society. All baked goods, most breads, fish and chips, commercial hamburgers, hot dog wieners and many deli items contain wheat flour. Like corn which is now found in both food and household products from carpets to cleaners, wheat is used in many foods as a filler, a thickener, and a starch. Read labels carefully. Words such as triticale indicate wheat.

It is expensive to eat a wheat-free diet. La Baguette’s wheat-free bread (absolutely delicious btw) is two times the price of a wheaten loaf. Spelt bread usually contains some wheat, as do oatmeal breads, rye breads, whole grain or multi-grain breads, and kamut bread. If they don’t contain wheat, many do contain added wheat gluten as that’s what gives the dough its elasticity. So be sure to ask: is it wheat –free or gluten – free or both?

If you want to try a gluten free regime, here are some ideas:
• La Baguette’s excellent wheatless and gluten free bread contains soy, corn, rice and xanthan gum. It toasts very well too.
• Supermarkets usually stock a few gluten-free products, often in the frozen section for bread and in the natural foods section for items such as pancake mix.
• Mountain Goodness Natural Food stocks wheatless macaroni and lasagna noodles and has a good selection of alternatives such as quinoa.
• most soups contain some wheat products; make your own with broth and packages of frozen or fresh veggies for convenient and quick lunch soups.
• make your own granola to avoid breakfast cereals that contain wheat: 4 cups oat flakes, ½ cup each canola oil and honey or maple syrup; nuts of your choice; and any or all of hemp, flax, sunflower seed, coconut, pumpkin seed, raisins, cranberries, dried fruit. Or omit the oil and sweetener to make muesli base and add the fruit at the last minute.
• fry fish or other items needing a “coating” in potato flour rather than wheat flour. Add a little parmesan cheese if you want a more substantial “breading.”
• use potato flour to thicken gravies or soups.
• learn to love alternative breakfasts: smoothies, a poached egg on spinach, potato pancakes, oat bars.