You’ve probably heard the term gluten-free. You might even have an idea what it means. Maybe you’ve even tried gluten-free eating. But, there are a lot of people out there who are unclear what this means. So, I thought I would delve into this subject and get into some details. What is gluten-free? Why go gluten-free? Why not? Is it right for me? And, why is there a rise in people who are going gluten-free? Gluten & the gluten-free diet… what’s up?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and triticale. Bakers are familiar with gluten because it’s the substance that gives dough its elasticity and structure. Gluten is an important source of nutrition, an additive to foods otherwise low in protein, a flavoring additive, or a thickening agent. It’s in bread; it’s in pasta; it’s in cupcakes. It’s in unexpected places like soup, ice cream, ketchup, salad dressings, lipstick, play dough, and oatmeal.
Why go gluten-free?
These are the major reasons why someone might need to give up gluten for health reasons (be sure to contact your doctor if you have health concerns):
Celiac Disease – According to the Mayo Clinic, people with celiac disease have an immune reaction to gluten that causes damage to the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients. Symptoms can be as mild as digestive problems and minor skin rashes or as severe as anemia, arthritis, and intense abdominal pain. Some celiacs are so sensitive that even the smallest amount of gluten (a few bread crumbs, a tiny smear of flour, or alcohols and vinegars produced from wheat/barley/rye) can set them off. Once all gluten has been eliminated from the celiac’s diet, the lining of the small intestine can heal. Celiac disease can be diagnosed with a simple blood test and intestinal-lining biopsy, contact your doctor if you have concerns.
Wheat Allergy – A histamine reaction to wheat, much like a peanut allergy or a shellfish allergy. People with this allergy usually show hives, rashes, or stomach pain after consuming wheat.
Gluten Intolerance – There are also people who have a sensitivity to gluten or are gluten intolerant. These people experience many of the same symptoms as those with celiac disease, but without the accompanying damage to the small intestine. These people may be able to tolerate small doses of gluten with no ill-effects.
Autism and related disorders – A gluten-free, casein-free diet has been gaining popularity as a treatment for these disorders.
Why not go gluten-free?
For most people, a gluten-free diet offers no benefits; in fact, it may even bring unwanted results, such as weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. Whole grains, like wheat and rye are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, and B vitamins. And, it’s possible that a person could develop a deficiency in folate, iron, or fiber if careful meal planning isn’t followed.
In addition to some health risks, going gluten-free is a lot of work, tedious, and inconvenient. Read every label. Restaurants are hard to navigate as well because gluten is used in many things that would seem to make no sense at all (take a look below for some detailed things to avoid).
People often complain that gluten-free food can taste boring and lifeless. So if you don’t enjoy cooking for yourself or experimenting in the kitchen, going gluten-free will probably leave you wanting more – more taste, more variety, more food.
And, don’t get sucked into going gluten-free because you think it’s the next fad diet that’ll help you lose weight. True weight loss depends on lifestyle changes rather than fad diets. Eat whole foods and fewer processed foods; eat smaller portions, and exercise more; eat more plants, these are what will give you lasting results, not a fad diet.
Is gluten-free right for me?
Only you and your doctor can say for sure. But before you answer, be sure to read over the things you’ll have to avoid (see “How do I go Gluten-free?” below). If after reading all the work that goes into it you still think it might be for you, then I’d say as long as you’re committed and keep on top of your diet, you might be onto something.
If you think you have a gluten intolerance and would like to read more. Here are some great sites for more info & recipes:
Delightfully Gluten Free – A blog that focuses on products with lots of giveaways.
How do I go Gluten free?
Read labels carefully and keep an eye out for gluten or wheat cloaked in another name…
- barley (contains gluten, not wheat),
- couscous (spherical granules made by rolling and shaping moistened semolina wheat),
- durum (wheat with hard dark-colored kernels high in gluten and used for bread and pasta),
- einkorn (either the wild species of wheat, Triticum boeoticum, or the domesticated form, Triticum monococcum),
- Kamut (A variety of high-protein wheat that’s actually trademarked)
- malt/flavoring/vinegar (There’s some controversy about the amount of gluten that ends up in malt items. Watch out for malt extract, syrup, flavoring, and malt vinegar),
- modified food starch,
- Muesli (breakfast cereal based on uncooked rolled oats, fruit and nuts),
- Orzo (A tiny pasta shape),
- Panko (dry Japanese bread crumbs),
- Play dough (though hopefully you don’t eat that!),
- Quorn products,
- seitan (Wheat gluten or “wheat meat”cooked in tamari soy sauce, kombu, and water),
- semolina (milled product of durum wheat or other hard wheat),
- tabouli (Tabbouleh),
Also, check the label to see if the product is made in a facility that uses wheat, as contamination can occur. According to the “Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Act.” companies must identify the eight most prevalent food allergens – eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soybeans, tree nuts, and wheat on their labels.
Check out the website Allergy for an extensive list of items to look out for.
Imitation Krab is made from surimi , which contains wheat. Many people with celiac disease don’t eat oatmeal because gluten is used in storing it and there’s often cross contamination in the production facility.
Soy sauce is usually fermented with wheat and soy, though the levels of gluten can be tolerable for some people. Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, hosein sauce, and many other sauces contain wheat.
Be careful with anything made with “fillers”, such as hot dogs or sausage, as the fillers are most likely made from or with wheat. Most canned and restaurant made soups and gravy have wheat used as a thickener. Most imitation meats like Gardenburger and Quorn contain gluten, though I found a non-meat burger at Trader Joe’s that was gluten-free. If you’re going to use store-bought bouillon, be sure to read the label, as bouillon often contains gluten. Chewing gum is sometimes coated in wheat to preserve freshness and make the gum not stick to other things.
There are some products that contain wheat with the gluten removed. This works for celiacs, whose intestinal cilia have been badly damaged by gluten, but it doesn’t work for people who are allergic to wheat itself.
There are many gluten-free substitutes like rice, corn, soy, potato, tapioca, beans, quinoa, millet, and buckwheat to name a few. Be creative in your cooking. Recipes for the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) and Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet (GAPS Diet) are gluten-free. Ask questions. See what works for you. Be sure to read labels. Shop in gluten-free friendly stores like Sprouts and Mother’s. They’ll have more options on their shelves.
When it comes to converting your favorite baking recipes to gluten-free, a simple one-to-one flour substitution will not yield the same results as your recipe based on wheat flour. I’ll be posting a second gluten-free guide with some recipes and measurements – keep an eye out for that. Gluten is a giving, stretchy ingredient that supports rise, structure, and texture. It takes more than a single gluten-free flour replacement to make a cake, bread, muffin or cookie recipe work. A combination of gluten-free flours and starches with some extra egg whites for leavening, Xanthan Gum, or Arrowroot Powder added to improve viscosity is necessary for optimum results.
In general, to avoid all these worries of reading labels and deciphering this that or the other marketing term, I’d suggest sticking with whole foods – fresh veggies, fruits, meats, and legumes.
Why is there a rise in people who are going gluten-free?
This is up for debate. There are many hypothesizes, but no concrete answers.
One theory states that our bodies aren’t able to a adapt to wheat and milk products, as we were designed to be hunters and gatherers eating primarily meats, whole fruits and vegetables. Since our Western diet includes so much wheat our bodies have developed these allergies.
Another theory says that the food we eat and the environments that we live in are too “clean”. We don’t get exposed to bacteria found in places like soil anymore. Chemicals purify the food. Meats are dosed with antibiotics. This, “hygiene hypothesis”, suggests our modern environment is so clean that the immune system has little to attack and turns on itself.
There’s also the simple fact that stress and the sedentary lifestyle we lead takes a toll on our bodies.
I’ve attempted to give a good basic start to understanding gluten-free eating. There’s always more to learn and so much to understand. I’m not personally gluten-free, though I love the challenge of cooking for someone with dietary restrictions. Since I’m a vegetarian (for almost 22 years now & just about a year ago I started adding seafood to my diet), I think the restrictions are actually fun and make the cook be a little more creative. If you’re gluten-free let me know if you’ve had any great ways to cook, great dishes, or if you’ve learned of some other type of food to avoid.