In recent years, gluten has gained a lot of attention in popular media. From gluten-driven weight gain to celiac disease, in this article I answer everything you need to know about gluten so you can feel confident making healthy choices in your everyday life.
What is gluten & where does it come from?
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat (einkorn, durum, farro, graham, kamut, semolina, spelt), barley, and rye as well as food made from these grains. Gluten is known to be found in bread, bagels, muffins, crackers, noodles, pretzels, cookies, cakes – all typically made with wheat flours. It can also be found in other unexpected places such as beer, soy sauce, imitation meats, and ice cream. Gluten gives bread dough its elasticity and chewy texture.
What is celiac disease?
Normally, the body’s immune system is designed to protect itself from foreign invaders. Celiac disease is a hereditary (passed down in the family) autoimmune disorder (the body’s immune system attacks itself) where ingestion of gluten causes the body’s immune system to form antibodies that attack the intestinal lining. These attacks lead to the damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that help you absorb nutrients. When the villi are damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly in the body and malnutrition occurs. People with celiac disease are unable to have any amounts of gluten because it is destructive to the small intestine. When trace amounts of gluten are consumed, it is damaging and takes the body time to heal the intestinal lining.
Symptoms of celiac disease include: digestive problems (bloating, pain, gas, diapered, pale stools and weight loss), skin rash, anemia, and musculoskeletal problems (muscle cramps, joint and bone pain), etc.
What is gluten sensitivity (non-celiac disease)?
People with a gluten sensitivity experience symptoms similar to people with celiac disease but lack the same antibodies and intestinal damage. Gluten intolerances occur when a person’s immune system responds abnormally during gluten breakdown in the digestive system. As a result, this causes uncomfortable symptoms such as “foggy mind”, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, headaches, constipation, heartburn and other problems. When gluten is eliminated from the diet, these symptoms go away.
Is it safe to eat gluten if you do not have celiac disease or a sensitivity?
Although a current trend, for most people, following a gluten free diet is not necessary because most of us can digest this protein completely fine. The reason people see weight loss results with following a gluten free diet are due to the removal of excess amounts of processed flour products in their diet and the incorporation of much healthier choices. If someone is trying to adapt to a healthy and nutritious lifestyle, worrying about gluten is just going to add to additional unneeded restrictions, when really the focus should be on what nutrients they need to get at each meal – having balanced meals.
Gluten by itself does not offer any special nutritional benefits. Although, many whole grains that contain gluten do. Whole wheat pasta, which we use here at fit-flavors, contains many vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, iron, and fiber. Consuming whole grains as part of a healthy diet has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
What does it mean to be certified gluten free?
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has defined the term “gluten-free” as voluntary use in the labeling of foods. Since, August 5, 2014, the FDA has required that a product labeled “gluten-free” contains less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten, which is the lowest level that can be constantly detected in foods using scientific analytical tools. By having this uniform definition, people with celiac disease and sensitivities can feel confident in choosing foods. There is no cure for celiac disease and the only way to manage the disease is with diet – not eating gluten.
Manufacturers may choose to use effective quality control tools to ensure that any foods they label gluten-free do not contain 20 ppm or more gluten, such as:
- conducting in-house gluten testing of starting ingredients or finished foods,
- employing a third-party laboratory to conduct in-house gluten testing,
- requesting certificates of gluten analysis from ingredient suppliers, or
- participating in a third-party gluten-free certification program.