The truth about gluten

Most supermarkets now have dedicated floor space for gluten-free products, there are gluten-free sections in restaurant menus, and people pledging gluten-free diets.   

Apart from the number of people who have gluten intolerance and those suffering Coeliac disease who must avoid it, has gluten been demonised more than it deserves?

We get to terms with the pros and cons about gluten.

What is gluten?
Technically speaking, gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. It helps to bind and add elasticity and texture to foods, such as breads and is used as a thickening agent in many processed foods. Apart from the obvious wheat-based products like bread, pasta and baked goods, gluten is also found condiments, processed meats, snack foods and processed dairy foods.

Many people with digestive issues, such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and excessive wind, attribute their problem to gluten intolerance, but singling out gluten as the culprit can be a complex task.

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The gluten-free market has become a 100 million dollar industry.

Coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity
While the symptoms mentioned above are fairly prevalent in many people, the causes can be varied. Coeliac disease is one condition which can cause these and many other more serious symptoms and there is no doubt that gluten is a harmful factor for those with this disease.

Coeliac disease causes inflammation and damage to the small bowel, but this can also lead to a wide range of other chronic ailments and symptoms in a variety of body organs and systems. A gluten-free diet is a proven way of helping to control this disease.

Only a very small percentage of people, however, suffer from Coeliac disease and it mainly affects those who are genetically predisposed to it. The much broader group of those who suffer intestinal issues but who don’t have Coeliac disease are generally identified as having ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ or ‘gluten intolerance’. For this latter category, the role of gluten in their condition is less clear.

Is gluten the guilty party?
There is no doubt that a gluten-free diet may result in relief for those who suffer non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. The question mark, however, hangs over the singling out of gluten as the direct cause. A gluten-free diet will also by default eliminate other chemical components that may well be the real cause of the problem. 

Recent research suggests that the malabsorption of a substance known as fermentable sugars (or FODMAPs) may be the real culprit and the gluten-free diet may also be excluding these compounds.

There is not yet any conclusive evidence either way on this. Those with a concern over blaming gluten suggest that a gluten-free diet may be unnecessarily limiting the intake of other nutritional elements in foods that contain gluten. In the midst of this uncertainty, the best answer is to consult your medical professionals and get a personalised assessment, although it may take some thorough dietary testing over a period of time to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

Does gluten-free mean it is healthier?
Identifying a product as gluten-free does not directly equate to it being healthier or being less fattening. The best approach is to take a broader view of the merits of each gluten-free product by taking note of the fibre, fat, sugar and preservative contents disclosed on the nutritional information on the packaging.

While it is important to identify if gluten is a problem for you (via medical advice), it is equally important to not simply focus on this one element of diet. A balanced diet with high proportions of fresh produce, vegetables, legumes, lean meat and fish should always be a priority for overall health.

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Many gluten-free foods are just as processed as other foods and can have just as many or even more calories.

Identifying gluten when you shop
If you are trying to eliminate gluten, it may not always be straightforward to identify it on your trip to the grocery store. Fortunately, many products these days will clearly identify if they are gluten-free, but there is no mandatory requirement to identify gluten as an ingredient in nutritional information labelling. It is mandatory, however, for food additives derived from wheat, rye, barley, triticale or oats to be declared on food labels, so looking for those ingredients will indicate if gluten may be present.

If in doubt, do some research on particular foods that you like to eat. A great place to start is the website of Coeliac Australia association, which offers detailed advice for shopping and dining out. 

What are your thoughts on the gluten-free movement? Join the conversation below!