5. The Silent Germ (Gluten-free)

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst (John 6:35). 

The Silent Germ
The Silent Germ

Bread: the food that symbolises the very embodiment of Christ, for Christ’s sake. Grains have been the staple food of most cultures for centuries, giving life to communities and providing energy for us to function.  The milling of grains into a digestible, adaptable, and storable substance could ensure a sustainable food source. So much so, the etymology of the word flour even describes it as “the finest” (Palmatier, p.136, 2000).

My photograph explores the connection between the historical appreciation for gluten and the modern disgust towards it, or, as author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf Aaron Bobrow-Strain asks: “how did white bread become white trash?” (Bobrow Strain, p.1 2013) Evidence for Bobrow-Strain’s statement can be seen in the rising suspicion of gluten products, and the dramatic increase in availability and sales of gluten-free products: within the UK, 10% of homeowners think gluten is bad, and the stock of gluten-free snack bars has more than doubled in the past 2 years (Fasano, 2015). The gluten- free diet has not only become normalised, but it is fashionable too, promoted by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus (Fasano, 2015).  A number of recent publications such as neurologist David Perlmutter’s The Grain Brain shows how extreme the fear of gluten has become:  he argues that the gluten has a devastating impact on health, causing brain disorders from depression to dementia (Perlmutter, 2015).

Critics of the gluten-free trend argue that gluten symbolises the “fear of social decay” (Bobrow-Strain, p. 5, 2013).  After the publication of Grain Brain, Alan Levinovitz released his book The Gluten Lie, labelling the fear of gluten as “quasi-religious beliefs…based on superstition and myth” (Levinovitz, p.1, 2015).  The pose of my model supports these religious references: her hands held up akin to a saint receiving the stigmata. Whilst there is still uncertainty about the prevalence of gluten sensitivity, the modern discourse of healthy eating has polarised gluten as “bad” for everyone. As a cultural phenomenon, Levinovitz goes as far as to suggest that gluten phobia has become a form of “mass sociogenic illness” (Levinovitz, p. 14, 2015).  This hysterical response to gluten also fed into the set-up of my photograph.

Whilst my own conclusions on the potential harms or benefits of gluten have not become clearer, I have seen how culturally and historically bound this issue is. My photograph is entitled The Silent Germ: a phrase Perlmutter uses to describe gluten in his book. I chose this phrase because it links the cultural fears of a ‘silent killer’ to medical fears of ‘germs,’ showing how extreme gluten phobia has become.  It also links neatly the themes in Silent Spring, where the fear of “hidden” dangers exacerbates cultural fears about food.

I took the photo in one of the few remaining working watermills left in England. The 17th century mill originally provided flour to Petworth House, but is now part of the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex, using the force of the River Rother to grind the wheat into flour.  I chose the watermill as the setting to provide a historical context to the gluten debate as it would have provided a vital food source to the local population.  I contrasted this with the modern exclusion of gluten, and the medical discourse of infection and germs. Wearing protective clothing, my model cowered from the bag of flour that had been produced that day. Although the watermill showed me how important gluten products used to be, gluten is clearly no longer the best thing since sliced bread.

Gluten-free organic sprouted rye bread anyone?


Bobrow-Strain A. 2013. White bread: a social history of the store-bought loaf. Boston: Beacon Press

Fasano A. 2015. “The great gluten-free diet fad.” BBC. URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine33486177. Accesssed July 2015.

Levinovitz A. 2015. The gluten lie: and other myths about what you eat. New York; Regan Arts.

Palmatier RA. 2000. Food: a dictionary of literal and nonliteral terms. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Perlmutter, D. 2013. Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers. New York: Little, Brown and Company.


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