New Scientist (12 July 2014) treads bravely into a minefield with the tagline “Wheat intolerance is more about psychology than physiology.”
“Is it plausible that something that has been a staple food for centuries can be so bad for so many?” it pushes, while acknowledging it is indeed so for a small number of people with allergies or coeliac disease. It seems the large number of those who self-diagnose are in the firing line of this writer.
As one who has presided over communion services where gluten free wafers are sometimes an optional extra, the question mildly interests me.
Wheat is a significant metaphor in Christian symbology, and I have not had too much cause to ponder whether its banishment from gluten-free diets affects the metaphorical attachment we Christians place on it.
Jesus refers to wheat frequently in his parables. It is necessary for the grain to fall into the soil and die before sprouting and bringing forth prolific new life. The seed that falls on good soil brings forth multiple yields. The wheat and the tares grow together but will be separated at the harvest. The farmer sows but it is the rain and sun that brings forth growth. Jesus and his Galilee companions were surrounded by an agrarian economy .
Jesus used common staple fare to make his point. It is why, in some contexts, coconuts or rice are acceptable substitutes when celebrating communion. For coeliac sufferers, gluten-free fare is an appropriate substitute; it is their staple.
New Scientist points out that faddish endorsements of a gluten-free diet may obscure some important considerations. People with coeliac disease are warned of the risk that their diet could be deficient in key nutrients. Gluten-free foods are often short on fibre and high on sugar. Effective redress is complicated, inconvenient and often expensive.
In a substantially well-off economy over-supplied with an abundance of foodstuffs, the unafflicted can debate over a range of diets, try them out, and then move on to something else that becomes an obsession. I have a suspicion, however, that “gluten free” is not a phrase heard much in subsistence economies.