Gluten is protein found in grains, its name comes from the latin for ‘glue’ and it does just that giving binding and elastic properties to flour. It is common knowledge that it is found in wheat and wheat products such as bread and pasta. However, it crops up in many different places too, different grains such as oats, barley and rye. It is also extracted from grains and then added to products such as stock cubes, vegetarian ‘meats’, soy sauce, ketchup and even ice creams!
Is it really so bad for our health?
About 1% of the population is coeliac, these people have an immune reaction to gliadin (one type of gluten) that causes inflammation and damage to their intestines. This causes a range of symptoms from abdominal bloating, gas, diarrhoea, pain and vomiting to weight loss and nutrient deficiencies to migraine headaches and joint pain. Equally, approximately another 5% of the population suffer from the controversial Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), a condition arising from gastrointestinal and systemic responses to gluten. There is no medically recognised test for it, and many in the medical world are sceptical of its existence. Although there is more and more compelling evidence that it is a real problem for a section people*.
The single best way to determine if you are gluten intolerant is to take it out of your diet for at least 30 days, then reintroduce it. Your body knows better than any test. If you feel significantly better without gluten or feel worse when you reintroduce it, then gluten is likely a problem for you.
So what about the rest of us, is going gluten-free a good idea and are gluten-free foods better for us?
Gluten in our food chain has changed over the last 50 years. The development of modern wheat hybridizations for better yields contain new ’foreign’ proteins that we are less well equipped to digest. Wheat is now often chemically altered (deamidated) to make it water soluble and added to many different processed foods. This deamidation has been shown to produce a large immune response in many people. Lastly, we are eating more wheat than our ancestors and possibly overloading our systems.
Avoiding a diet that is too reliant on wheat is important for everyone. Weetabix or toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner is all too easy and common. Having a diet that has variety and based on whole foods including whole grains is best for most people. Often people feel better on a gluten-free diet because they’re suddenly making better choices. Thinking about what you eat, reducing your overall reliance on carbohydrate and not eating processed foods is why you will feel better not necessarily the gluten elimination.
Gluten-free foods and diets can help to alleviate problems caused by gluten but many of them are unhealthy and highly processed. When manufacturers create a gluten-free product, they swap out wheat flour for another flour such as almond, rice, corn or even bean. They also need to replicate the missing glutens effect of texture, structure and shape. Additives such as xanthum gum, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose or corn starch are introduced. Extra sugar and fat are also added to the products to make them tastier. This often means the final product is less nutritious with more nasties than the non gluten-free product. When choosing a gluten-free substitute always read the ingredients label and avoid if there are lots of ingredients that you have never heard of and can’t pronounce.
A 2010 study** showed that those on a gluten-free diet are at higher risk of consuming high sugar, low fibre diet with lower intakes of essential nutrients such as magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, selenium and folate.
If you are struggling with gluten there a plenty of naturally gluten-free foods including grains such quinoa, millet and buckwheat. Beans and nuts are also useful sources of nutrient dense replacement foods. Wholefoods and recipes made from scratch are without doubt the best way to keep a nutrient dense healthy diet when going gluten-free.