The idea of being “gluten-free” has become more and more popular over the past couple of years. When I was growing up, it was practically unheard of. But then again, so was the idea of not owning a microwave. Is this just another dietary fad? Or is there more to it?
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the main protein found in wheat. It gives dough its elasticity, ability to rise, and maintain shape. Gluten is also the key to the chewy texture in bread. It is extracted intentionally from wheat flour to make “wheat gluten.” This extract is used as a meat substitute in some countries because of its stringy and chewy texture and high protein content.
Is Gluten Bad?
The short answer: No. The long answer: Let’s change the question to “Is gluten bad for you?” If you have Celiac disease, then gluten is poison. You certainly want to stay away from it. If you have a gluten allergy, that is also a problem. But the question of “how do I know for sure” may linger. It is possible that you have a “gluten sensitivity” also.
Scientists are learning that reactions and disease related to gluten and wheat exist on a spectrum of severity. In this article we will talk briefly about three broad classifications of these conditions: Celiac disease, Wheat Allergies, and Gluten Sensitivity.
That may sound like a lot of semantics, but we think it matters quite a bit because these are three different conditions with three sets of implications. The only way to determine for sure which bucket – if any – you fall into is to have tests done by a physician.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease that causes the immune system to attack the villi in the small intestine when gluten is consumed. The result is chronic inflammation of the small intestine. This severely impedes the person’s ability to assimilate nutrients and can lead to long term complications if it goes unchecked for too long. Celiac is a genetic disorder but it can remain asymptomatic well into adulthood until it is triggered by events such as pregnancy or aging.
There is no debate about the fact that someone with Celiac disease must avoid gluten. In fact, some studies indicate that someone with Celiac disease could have a serious reaction to a product that contains gluten in amounts as small as 20 parts per million. That’s an extremely miniscule amount. It is widely accepted in the medical community that the only treatment for Celiac disease is a life long gluten-free diet. In time, the small intestine will heal and the individual’s health can be restored.
What Is A Wheat Allergy?
A wheat allergy is also an auto-immune response. However, the response can be triggered both by ingestion and occupational exposure. It also is not specific to gluten. There are several other identified allergens in wheat that are not related to gluten. If you suspect that you have Celiac Disease because of your reaction to wheat, but you have not had this confirmed with biological testing done by your physician, you may want to get this done. You might find out that you are not allergic to gluten after all, but a different component in wheat. This would be very important for you to know.
What Is Gluten Sensitivity?
A gluten sensitivity refers to a non-autoimmune, non-allergic response to gluten. That is the main difference between Celiac disease and a gluten sensitivity. However the symptoms are similar in nature to those of Celiac disease, wheat allergies, and IBS. Testing by your physician can help you determine if you do in fact suffer from a gluten sensitivity. For some people with a gluten sensitivity, life-long abstinence from wheat is not necessary as the sensitivity can regress.
Gluten Free Diets
A gluten free diet requires the removal of wheat, rye, and barley from the diet. Additional substances should also be avoided including triticale, durum, graham, kamut, semolina, spelt, malt, and malt flavoring or malt vinegar. Here are some good substitutes: corn, potatoes, rice, tapioca, amaranth, arrowroot, millet, montina, lupin, quinoa, sorghum, taro, teff, chia seed, yam, nut flours, and buckwheat (make sure it is pure).
This seems fairly straight forward. However, gluten can make surprise appearances. And as we discussed, in the case of someone with Celiac disease, it doesn’t take much to trigger a reaction.
Gluten As A Food Additive
Gluten is sometimes used as a stabilizing agent or thickener in products like ice-cream and some condiments. It is also sometimes found in over the counter medications and prescriptions as well as some cosmetic products. Be sure to check thoroughly before consuming anything that has not come from your doctor if you need to avoid gluten.