Wheatgrass: Gluten-Free, or Gluten-Full?

Ah, wheatgrass.

For something so innocent and cheerfully plastic-looking as it sits waving at you from the Whole Foods juice bar (like Easter basket grass), wheatgrass carries an unexpected amount of controversy. As with much of the juicing and raw-food health movements, a lot of the history and science behind the benefits of drinking wheatgrass prove questionable at best. According to Ellen Coleman, in an article written for the National Council Against Health Fraud back in 1994, sometime during the last century, a woman named Ann Wigmore, who may or may not have had credible training in any particular health field (depending on whom you ask), observed that in the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the king, upon losing his mind and taking to the outdoors to eat grass like an animal, recovered at the end of seven years of insanity. This observation began to nurture the growth of the wheatgrass craze: Ann Wigmore theorized that something about eating grass must have cured Nebuchadnezzar's mental issues.

At this point, it would be fun to begin noting a variety of things: 1.) Eating grass wasn't exactly the central point of the Biblical story. 2.) "The National Council Against Health Fraud" doesn't sound like an especially unbiased organization. 3.) Ellen Coleman's article goes on to refute most of her own objections to Wigmore's methodology by supporting so many of Wigmore's conclusions. 4.) Wikipedia, which knows all, gives an entirely different story for the discovery of wheatgrass' miraculous powers. 5.) For every five experts online discussing the benefits of wheatgrass, at least six of them have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. Take me, for example.

Lately I've been attempting to get to the bottom of whether or not wheatgrass is considered "gluten-free." This has led to a lot of online research, most of which has turned out to be one giant web of contradiction. Many people point out that not all things with the word "wheat" in it are unsafe for celiacs, and hold "buckwheat" up as a star example. Problematically, while buckwheat is neither wheat nor even a grass, wheatgrass is actually both. For anyone allergic to wheat, it's reasonable to say that this rules it out of the diet. But for those of us who are allergic only to gluten (a component of certain grains), it leaves a lot of questions.

To the best of my knowledge, gluten is not necessarily present in all parts of a wheat plant, but primarily found in something called the endosperm, a particular portion of the seed. Because wheatgrass is harvested long before the plant reaches seed stage, proponents argue that wheatgrass is celiac-safe. On the other hand, because wheatgrass is grown from a gluten-containing seed, and goes on to produce gluten-containing seed, opponents argue that it cannot possibly be celiac-safe.

Whether or not the health benefits are worth the risk basically comes down to a matter of personal opinion. My favorite quote from all my research thus far runs, "Wheatgrass has a strong cleansing effect and may make you nauseous if you start with too much." Hmm. I have other theories on why it might make you nauseous, and none of them have to do with cleansing. Last week, I mentioned having a strong aversion to things that juice bars serve in shot glasses. It is precisely because of things like this--the color of Crayola grass, and smelling like all the wrong parts of spring--that the aversion developed. Wheatgrass has always made me nauseous, and I stopped drinking it long before any doctor ever suggested that I should go gluten-free. To me, drinking wheatgrass, gluten aside, isn't worth any of its reported health benefits.

But if the idea of something that might detoxify your entire system, balance your blood sugar, increase red blood cell count, prevent tooth decay, improve your hormonal situation, cure insanity, and so on and so forth is enticing enough to overthrow the horrors of its taste for you--well, then, here's my unofficial ruling on the safety of wheatgrass for the gluten-intolerant: It may or may not work out for you. (Helpful, right?) Nothing of potential danger is gluten-free to a sufficiently gluten-sensitive person.

Still want to give it a shot? Then go for the wheatgrass that you can see growing in little planters at your local juice bar. Avoid anything prepackaged, since there is no way to know at what point the grass was harvested or whether some seed was accidentally processed along with it. This seems to be the single greatest wheatgrass-related danger to celiacs: Even if its label says "gluten-free" and "wheatgrass," it is totally possible (and not entirely uncommon) that wheatgrass harvested in bulk for bottled juices or powdered drinks may contain some grass that has already begun to go to seed. The stuff grown in trays and harvested a little at a time every few days, however, is unlikely to have the chance, and therefore most people consider it safe.

Then again, you have to ask yourself: If, as the organic food movement says, food primarily obtains its nutrients from the soil and environment it is grown in, how many life-altering nutrients can wheatgrass grown in a tray under fluorescent lighting really have?

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