We are seeing more and more gluten-free items in shops and restaurants now. Why this sudden move to avoiding gluten and is it really healthier for us? For some people, gluten is a real problem, but some of the gluten-free products on the market are highly refined and may not be any better for us than their gluten rich counterparts.
What is Gluten?
It is one of the most widely and heavily consumed proteins in the world. Gluten is the name given to the group of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). It is formed when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, come into contact with each other and form a bond. It is elastic and helps food to keep its shape, with its fibers acting as a “glue” that holds the food together and traps carbon dioxide between the strands, adding volume to baked products.
Wheat provides the majority of gluten in our diets. It is an important source of nutrients for much of the population, providing around twenty percent of the world’s calories. It is versatile, being used for bread, pasta, and numerous breakfast cereals, but is also a hidden ingredient in many other products, such as soups, sauces, dressings, spreads, snack foods and even processed meats, frozen vegetables and biltong.
How can wheat now be bad for us and is it?
How can something that has been consumed for thousands of years suddenly be a bad thing for many people? Much research has been done, and the jury is still out. Some believe that the wheat that we eat today is different to that eaten thousands of years ago, with the proteins being more complex now. Others believe that it is not the wheat that has changed, but is something else.
Others believe that wheat’s problem lies in the fact that the carbohydrate in wheat is so quickly and completely broken down, leading to a sugar spike and inflammation in the body, and that the adverse reaction is not really due to the gluten.
Yet others believe that our wheat “sensitivity” may be due to the fact that our good gut bacteria or microbiome has changed. We have less than half of the species of bacteria in our guts that our ancestors had, and that lack in diversity may lead to our adverse immune response.
Adverse intestinal symptoms may be due to the excess amounts of wheat that is consumed, or the highly processed flour with most of the wheat germ together with its nutrients removed. It may also be the chemical additives that are added to products containing gluten which are causing a reaction in our bodies. Gluten may be getting a bad reputation for no reason in many people. Some research has found that It may be due to FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) and not gluten at all, but that will have to be left for another blog.
For some people gluten itself is a very big issue. Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disorder. When individuals with this disorder eat something containing gluten, their body launches an immune response which damages the villi in the small intestine. When these villi get damaged, the person cannot absorb nutrients properly. It is therefore essential that people who are celiac stay away from gluten totally. It is estimated that 1 in 100 people worldwide have this disorder, and it is inherited.
What is the solution?
If you are celiac, then you need to stay away from gluten containing products entirely. If you find that you are not celiac, but feel better without gluten then listen to your body. If you choose to consume gluten-free products, however, look for healthy options. Choose ones that are nutritious, not made with highly processed alternative flours that are free of nutrients.
The basis of a good, healthy gluten-free diet should be based on the same principles as any other diet. It should be full of nutrient dense whole foods and low in processed, highly refined foods. It should be diverse, and full of colour. You are what you eat.