Gluten appetit

Passover is coming up in a little over a week (March 25) – a perfect time to try one of the many diets that are all the rage these days: gluten-free. Berlin is on the bandwagon, too. But are we that food intolerant?

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Boris Leite-Poço. Photo by Eugénie Novellati

Berlin’s chefs are opening culinary temples to accommodate our increasingly troubled tummies – or spread the gospel of their own special diets. But are we really as ‘intolerant’ as we think?

To gauge the state of eating in Berlin, 2013, just try throwing a dinner party. Meat’s out, of course, with the possible exception of costly grass-fed Biofleisch. A cheese platter? Too much lactose. Vegan potato salad? Potatoes are nightshades, overflowing with histamines. A bread basket? Death by gluten.

There’s truly no end to what we won’t eat these days. Just ask Sarah. The 29-year-old Irish expat is, as she puts it, “mildly allergic to almost everything.” She experiences fatigue and eczema after eating dairy, apples, oranges, wine, soy or wheat. But she’s more than happy with the current Berlin food scene. “There’s so much choice, and there are lots of other people with annoying allergies.”

Adam Henstock, of the blog Glutenfrei in Berlin, concurs. “When I first came here I could only eat at a few places, like La Mano Verde,” says Henstock, who moved to Berlin from England in 2009. “I’d go somewhere and ask, does this have gluten? They’d say, ‘No, it only has flour!’ But now people are more aware.” Although vegan for health reasons, Mano Verde head chef Jean-Christian Jury still eats bread. But he began offering gluten-free options when he noticed that visitors to his all-vegan, sometimes-raw restaurant were asking more and more questions about what was on the menu.

It certainly seems like the number of food-intolerant Berliners is rising, but there’s no way to tell for sure. Unlike true food allergies – rapid, potentially deadly immune responses – intolerances can take days to manifest and have more nebulous symptoms. There’s indigestion, of course, but also skin problems, fatigue and just kind of feeling crummy. With the exception of severe gluten and lactose intolerance, these are hard to separate out from simple stress or other‘Kreislauf’ (circulatory) disorders.

The Imupro test, introduced in 2000 by the German company Evomed, purports to do just that, detecting ‘sensitivities’ to 270 foods from just one blood sample. “When people come to me, I offer a basic screening first,” says Dr. Dorothee Tigges of Futuremed, a cushy beauty and wellness centre in Mitte. “But it’s funny – everyone wants the big test, right away.”

She flips through a thick folder containing a mock-up set of test results. “This patient has a mild reaction to cauliflower, a medium reaction to crab meat…” A laminated printout sorts the 270 foods into categories: “What I can eat.” “What to reduce.” Next, a booklet of personalised recipes. It’s a neurotic’s Bible.

Dr. Andreas Müller, a Prenzlauer Berg GP versed in natural medicine, acupuncture and nutrition, is against performing the test, describing it as a temporary snapshot of a person’s digestive system. The results can change from month to month, depending on what you happen to be eating more of at a given time. He prefers to prescribe a screening for 44 common food reactions, he says, but of the patients that come to him with digestive troubles, “about 70 percent” have no intolerances whatsoever.

But many Berliners eschew doctors, preferring to trust their own body and experiences… and Google. “Everyone started with a disbelief in the common sense about health,” says Boris Leite-Poço who, along with his partner Rodrigo, opened Berlin’s first and only Paleo restaurant, Sauvage, two years ago. He’d had health issues for years before hearing about the theory that the products of human agriculture – like lactose, sugar, and all grains – are bad for us, and that we should follow the hunter-gatherer diet of our long-time forefathers.

“I read about it on a blog,” he says. (Ironically, followers of the so-called ‘caveman’ diet tend to be voracious internet users.) “I tried being a vegetarian, but that just made me sicker. When I went Paleo, I felt better after three weeks. Asthma, skin problems, a weak immune system… that all disappeared. It changed my life.” Sarah also found her salvation away from her GP’s office.  When she was 18 she suffered from a skin rash for a year; she visited countless specialists to no avail until an elderly faith healer finally diagnosed her with her dairy allergy. “I’m afraid to say she waved a crystal over my head.”

Daniel Bader, of Friedrichshain’s Cupcake Berlin and Dirty South, experienced painful stomach attacks for years before deciding to cut out gluten. At first, “I felt like I was reborn or something,” he says. But the attacks continued. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed him with a severe egg allergy. “The test didn’t show any problems with gluten.” But he continues to avoid it (along with lactose, mushrooms and onions), “no matter what any doctor says”. He even has a gluten-free symbol tattooed on his hand, the mark of a true believer.

Each of these chefs is quick to acknowledge that every body has its own needs – but that doesn’t stop them from trying to win ever more acolytes. Jury’s starting a “30-Day Vegan Challenge” at La Mano Verde, encouraging people to keep to a vegan diet for one month in the hopes that they’ll stick to it – even though, as he says, “my body loves Omega-3,” i.e. fish.

Leite-Poço has a similar agenda. “I’m not a prophet,” he says. “But I say if you’re interested, try the Paleo diet for three weeks. I actually think everyone’s gluten intolerant.” He goes on to talk about the toxins present in all grains, even the wholesome-sounding amaranth and quinoa – something Dr Müller emphatically denies.

The exception is Clarissa Orsine of Friedrichshain’s vegan Ohlàlà tart shop. A trained French patissière, Orsine began baking gluten-free treats not for her own health, but to satisfy a pair of gluten-intolerant friends who came to Berlin last summer. But “once I had it, there were more and more people asking for it”. Now, she makes sure to have at least one savoury and one sweet gluten-free option per day. “I don’t think there’s a big difference in taste,” she says. “But I’m glad I’m not allergic.”

She is, however, a vegan for political reasons. In a way, this makes her a member of a dying breed. Though their diets sometimes happen to be environmentally friendly, these new eaters lack any greater ideology. “It’s the vegan philosophy that is most repulsive to the non-vegan,” says Jury, who says he started La Mano Verde to steer veganism away from its “alternative” image and into the realm of physical wellness. “The Paleo diet would never put ethics above individual health,” acknowledges Leite-Poço. “I eat grass-fed meat because humans evolved to eat animals that eat grass, not grain. But if new research came out that said conventional meat is healthier, I would eat that instead.”

In these ‘intolerant’ times, food allegiances have been compared to religion. Yet the comparison starts and ends with the creed – and maybe the proselytism. The modern belief in a diet lacks the promise of salvation in the hereafter. Instead, the alpha and the omega of any food-based faith is one’s own body. Is the promise of leaving this earth as a healthy, pristine corpse enough to justify a lifelong devotion to one particular diet?