Ever since the fad of gluten-free diets kicked in, a plain slice of bread has never looked so complex. Or so guilty. ‘Gluten,’ a name that was seldom heard outside the baking world, has now become the talk of the town. “Oh, I’ve gone gluten-free!” “You’re still eating gluten?” Phrases like these are being exchanged so much in our daily conversations that it’s almost like gluten has suddenly become the world’s number one public enemy. But just a decade or two ago, gluten wasn’t in the limelight like it is now. So, what’s the real deal with gluten? Let’s unravel the mystery.
What is Gluten?
In the simplest terms, gluten is a group of proteins found primarily in wheat, barley, and rye. The name itself originates from the Latin word for “glue,” thanks to its sticky and elastic properties that give dough its doughy-ness. When you knead the dough for your favorite pizza, the strands of gluten protein stretch and form a network, trapping the air bubbles released by the yeast. This is what makes the dough rise, and gives it a chewy and satisfying texture.
Gluten is composed of two primary proteins: glutenin, which gives dough its elasticity, and gliadin, which is responsible for the dough’s extensibility. Different types of wheat, like spelt, durum, and semolina, have different proportions of these proteins, which explains why your multigrain bread has a different texture compared to a baguette or a croissant.
Where can you find Gluten?
Apart from the most obvious culprits – breads, pasta, and cereals – gluten hides in many other products too. Processed foods like sausages, canned soups, salad dressings, soy sauce, beer, and even some medicines and vitamins contain gluten as a thickening or binding agent. So, if you are trying to avoid gluten, you need to read food labels religiously. Gluten is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing!
Gluten’s Impact on our Body
Now, if gluten is in so many products, it must be pretty harmless, right? Well, the answer is both yes and no.
For most people, consuming gluten doesn’t cause any issues. But for a small percentage of the population, gluten can trigger health problems, ranging from mild to severe. The spectrum of gluten-related disorders includes celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity:
- Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging the lining of the small intestine, which can lead to malabsorption of nutrients, severe digestive issues, anemia, osteoporosis, and even increased risk of intestinal lymphomas.
- Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to wheat, similar to other food allergies. Symptoms can range from mild (rashes, stomach cramps, sneezing) to severe (anaphylaxis). It’s important to note that a person can be allergic to wheat without being sensitive to gluten.
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), as the name suggests, is a condition where symptoms occur following gluten ingestion, in the absence of celiac disease or wheat allergy. Symptoms may include bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headaches, joint pain, fatigue, and “foggy mind”.
It’s important to see a healthcare provider if you think you have any of these conditions, as the symptoms can overlap with other disorders. Diagnosis usually involves blood tests, and sometimes a biopsy of the small intestine.
The Gluten-free Trend
In the past few years, gluten-free diets have soared in popularity, even among people without any gluten-related disorders. Some people believe that eliminating gluten can lead to weight loss, increased energy, and overall health improvement. But is this really the case?
The answer largely depends on what you’re replacing the gluten-containing foods with. And gluten itself is not fattening. Remember, it’s simply a protein found in certain grains.
If you switch to a diet rich in whole foods, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables, then yes, you’ll likely see an improvement in your health, not because you’ve eliminated gluten, but because you’re eating a more balanced diet. On the other hand, if you’re replacing regular bread with gluten-free bread that’s high in sugar and low in fiber, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Weight gain or loss primarily comes down to the balance between the calories you consume and the calories you burn. Eating more calories than you burn leads to weight gain, regardless of whether those calories come from gluten-containing foods or gluten-free foods.
The truth is, unless you have a gluten-related disorder, there’s no proven benefit to following a gluten-free diet. It’s a challenging diet to follow and can lead to deficiencies in certain nutrients like fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and zinc.
If you do need to go gluten-free, whether it’s due to celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or NCGS, the best way to do it is to focus on foods that are naturally gluten-free. Fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all on the safe list.
Many grains and starches are gluten-free too, including rice, corn (maize), soy, potato, tapioca, beans, garfava, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, arrowroot, amaranth, teff, flax, chia, yucca, gluten-free oats, and nut flours.
The challenge with going gluten-free is avoiding hidden sources of gluten. As we mentioned earlier, gluten is used in many processed foods. You also need to be cautious of cross-contamination. Even a tiny amount of gluten can trigger symptoms in people with celiac disease or NCGS.
The Bottom Line
So, why all the hullabaloo about gluten now? The increased attention is partly due to better diagnostic methods for celiac disease and related disorders. Earlier, these conditions often went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
Plus, the media has played a significant role in the gluten-free craze. Celebrities endorsing gluten-free diets and anecdotal success stories have contributed to the hype. And let’s not forget the influence of the diet and wellness industry, which is always on the lookout for the next big thing.
The bottom line is, gluten isn’t the villain it’s made out to be. For the majority of people, it’s perfectly safe. But for those with celiac disease, wheat allergy, or NCGS, a gluten-free diet is not a trend but a medical necessity.
Whether you choose to eat gluten or not, the key to good health is a balanced diet. Whole foods, minimal processed foods, and variety – these are the ingredients for a truly healthy diet. As with most things in life, it all comes down to moderation and balance. And if you suspect you may have a problem with gluten, seek advice from a healthcare professional before self-diagnosing or starting a gluten-free diet. It’s a complex world of grain proteins out there – tread wisely, and bon appétit!