First there was "fat-free". Then there was "sugar-free". Now, "gluten-free" has stolen the spotlight, flooding our supermarkets with new products promising a healthier diet. Gluten may be on the edge of everyone's lips, but what actually is it? Is it really that bad for us? Here's everything you need to know about it!
What is gluten?
Gluten is composed of two different proteins gliadin and glutenin, which nourish plant embryos during germination. Just like its name, gluten has a glue-like consistency, giving food elasticity and holding it together. Mainly found in wheat, barley and rye, gluten is present in the majority of what we eat today, and is now one of the most heavily consumed proteins on earth.
Which foods contain gluten?
Aside from the big three above, gluten is most commonly found in oats, spelt, kamut, couscous, triticale, bulgur and semolina. It is also used in processed foods as an additive and to "bulk them up". As these ingredients play a major part of the food we eat every day, gluten is often hidden in soup mixes, sauces (soy, hoi sin and Chinese bean), candies, salad dressings, frozen meatballs, cold cuts, low and no fat foods, and Chinese food (starch is used as a sauce thickener). When looking at off the shelf products, gluten is often labelled as modified food starch, malts starches, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), texturized vegetable protein (TVP), or natural flavouring. Outside of food, gluten can be found in medications, herbal supplements, vitamins, lipstick, lickable stamps and envelopes, and Play-Doh.
What are the side effects of eating gluten?
Before you go and throw out half of your pantry, keep in mind that your relationship with gluten is an individual affair - it all depends on how your body reacts when you consume it. Some people are fine. They can eat several servings of food containing gluten without any problems. However, others will experience one of the following:
1. Celiac disease
Approximately 1% of the population is genetically predisposed to gluten, suffering from a serious autoimmune disorder called celiac disease. This is where the simple act of consuming gluten damages the small intestine and stops the absorption of vital nutrients. Celiac disease can develop at any age, and if left untreated, can lead to other autoimmune disorders like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature, and intestinal cancers.
2. Gluten sensitivity
People who experience a mild reaction when consuming gluten may suffer from gluten sensitivity; also known as gluten intolerance. Symptoms are similar to those of celiac disease, however tissue transglutaminase (tTG) antibodies are not developed, and the small intestine is left intact. According to nutritionist, fitness & wellness coach, Carina Lipold, a higher heart rate after consuming gluten is a sign that you are experiencing an allergic reaction.
Should I avoid gluten?
This is a widely spoken topic with 2 schools of thought.
1. The case for gluten
While gluten supporters agree that it contains no nutritional content, they argue that the many whole grains (whole wheat, barley, cous cous etc.) that contain it do. "At any time you eliminate whole categories of food you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies," says Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. A 2005 report from the American Dietetic Association warned that gluten-free products can be seriously nutrient-deficient - low in B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber. This is because many gluten-free products are made with refined, unenriched grains and starches; plenty of calories but few vitamins or minerals. Many people try gluten-free diets in response to feeling tired, bloated or depressed, and correlate it with feeling better or losing weight. However, this could simply be the result of cutting out the excess calories found in many flour-based snack foods. Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian, says that another problem with eliminating gluten from your diet prematurely is that you won't be able to get an accurate diagnosis of your symptoms. Ultimately, an intestinal biopsy is the only way to detect celiac definitively.
2. The case against gluten
According to Dr Frank Lipman, an expert in integrative medicine, people should eliminate gluten from their diet as it contains proteins such as “gliadin”, which causes our immune system to react as if it is responding to a foreign body. In my experience, most people have problems digesting gluten grains as their body responds differently to when they consume nourishing foods. The majority of people who are gluten intolerant have a non celiac sensitivity. This causes an immune reaction that creates inflammation throughout the body, with wide-ranging effects across all organ systems including the brain, heart, joints, digestive tract. This can slowly wear down the immune system, causing a chronic, but vague unwellness, which doctors rarely diagnose. Ultimately, gluten can be the single cause behind many different “diseases”. And to correct these diseases, you need to treat the cause - which is often gluten sensitivity. For anyone who has a chronic illness, the first thing I do is remove gluten from their diet.