05/30/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Is This Floor Gluten-Free?

I was standing in the cosmetic aisle of the co-op with another health care practitioner when a bright-eyed clerk approached us. "You will be happy to hear," he reported enthusiastically, "that our shampoos are gluten-free."

As he walked away, Hannah whispered, "Isn't it funny that suddenly things that never contained gluten are being advertised as gluten-free?" She pulled an apple from her cart and asked in mock horror, "Do you think this apple is gluten free?" I smirked but quickly fell into the nutritionist version of morbid humor.

"I don't know but we should ask about this T-shirt because I only wear gluten-free clothes," I stated emphatically, and then we snickered like hyenas. "We better make sure this floor is gluten-free," I gasped, tears rolling down my face.

There is nothing like bad jokes to help make an unlivable situation more bearable. The unfunny reality is: For people who react badly to gluten, unclear labeling and convoluted manufacturing practices can turn eating into an extreme sport. One of my clients had diarrhea for weeks because the manufacturer of a food she ate safely for years started using flour in the production process. The recipe change was not noted and gluten/flour was not listed on the label.

Yesterday, I had a long conversation with a parent about gluten-free crayons. Her child with celiac disease regularly ate green crayons in lieu of green vegetables. Another client suffered severely after eating a dish ordered from the gluten-free menu of an upscale chain.

Almost everyone avoiding gluten has a war story to tell. And the number of people with serious gluten intolerance is growing and growing. The Mayo Clinic reported in 2009 that celiac disease is four times more common now than in the 1950s. That statistic does not include the increasing number of people who do not have a medically-diagnosed gluten-induced celiac disease but find they feel better avoiding the protein. This phenomenon is generally referred to as gluten sensitivity. The growing popularity of gluten-free diets by those identifying themselves as gluten sensitive or from self-imposed restriction likely accounts for the wide array of gluten-free products now available at most major grocery stores.

While companies rush to meet the consumer needs created by the new epidemic and experts argue about whether the gluten sensitivity thing is being overdone, the bigger questions are being completely overlooked. Why is wheat protein suddenly making so many more people feel bad? And more importantly, should we be putting some resources into fixing the cause rather than cleaning up the mess? It is much more convenient to label the swelling number of those claiming gluten sensitivity "hysterics" or exploit the new food market created by the swelling ranks of celiacs than to consider that there may be something wrong with the wheat. Yet, that is exactly the theory Mayo Clinic and other researchers suspect explains the climbing number of gluten reactors.

Over the last 50 years we have been playing Dr. Frankenstein with our crops. And like Dr. Frankenstein, our preliminary motives may have been noble, but somewhere along the line the scientists have gone a little nuts. Noble as in Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Dr. Norman Borlaug for developing (through hybridization) a hearty strain of high protein wheat that was credited for saving millions from starvation.

So far, so good. But early success with controlled breeding only fed the scientific directive to fiddle more and more with the crops so that the wheat of today is significantly different than the wheat of 50 or 60 years ago. And now the modification has stepped up to include transgenic or genetically-modified grains. I misspelled "transgenic" when I was doing research and learned a lot about cross dressing. The digression was not a complete waste of time as there is a kind of cross dressing involved in transgenic plants. Transgenic is a type of genetic modification where gene pieces with specific traits (such as drought resistance) are spliced out of one species (such as a bacteria) and put in another (such as corn). On the outside, the transgenic plant looks like regular old grain, but there is bacteria DNA hidden up its dress. Surprise!

Corn, soy and rice are grains that have been genetically modified for commercial purposes, and their use is widespread. The new genetically-altered product is referred to as a genetically-modified organism (GMO). Wheat, as a grass, is a little trickier to mess with genetically because its genome (or set of chromosomes) is 10 to 20 times bigger than rice and cotton. The Monsanto Corporation wants to bring transgenic wheat to the marketplace anyway. Jumping from hybridization to genetic modification is where, in the name of science, we have put the electrical wires on the neck bolts.

People are reacting in record numbers to what has been done to wheat already. In fact, allergies to all foods are steadily increasing arguably since genetically modified crops have been introduced commercially in the late '90s. Scientists have asked and even sued the government in an attempt to require more safety testing or at least labeling of this new Frankenstein food, without success. And we want to just keep plowing along and add wheat to the uncontrolled experiment we are already doing?

I think the only sane response is: Hell no, GMO. If we do not start looking at what got us to this point of gluten reactivity we may face a horrible irony one day. We may create all the food we need to feed the world through genetic modification and not be able to eat it without reacting. At that point, the only thing wheat might be good for is making floors.

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