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What is Gluten? Is The Bad Reputation Deserved?

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An often-spoken about substance in recent times but what is gluten and why does it get so much press?  

What Is Gluten? 

Gluten is a family of proteins that are found in grains like wheat, rye and barley among others. It is made up of two parts: glutenin and gliadin and it is the gliadin that is responsible for any negative health effects that someone may experience.  

what is gluten? it's found in grains such as wheat

When combined with water, gluten creates sticky, elastic strands that, when worked, are stretched to becomes a strong network. The strength and elasticity of the strands increases as they are worked, which is why you should mix cakes as little as possible to get a fine crumb texture while bread needs to be kneaded thoroughly to create a strong structure. In the case of bread, after it has been well kneaded, the gluten and yeast work together as the bubbles produced by the CO2 produced by the yeast inflates the dough into a spongy net like structure that sets into the texture, we are all familiar with in our everyday loaves. 

Foods that are high in gluten include: wheat, spelt, rye, barley, pasta, beer, cous cous, baked goods, soy, ketchup and granola. Many food items are produced or packaged in factories that have both glutinous and gluten-free products being worked with side by side so these items may be labelled with a “may contain gluten” label to alert anyone with sensitivities. 

Whether or not you are gluten intolerant, we highly recommend our article on how to make gluten-free bread. It’s delicious as a sandwich or pop it in a toaster and try some of our addictive “on toast” recipes   

Since the publication of the book “Wheat Belly” by William Davis and the revived popularity of the banting diet that was spearheaded by Tim Noakes and his recipe book “The Real Food Revolution” gluten has become a much-discussed topic. On one side we have people saying that gluten has no adverse effects on our bodies while in the gluten-free camp we have people extolling it as “poison.” The gluten-free side showed a significant difference in their digestive health as well as weight loss as a result of trying a gluten-free diet. However, scientifically, how do we know who is right? That’s what we are going to be exploring today. 

On Medical New Today they said: “most people can tolerate gluten with no adverse effects,” the only time when gluten has a direct negative effect on your system is if you are gluten intolerant, celiac disease or a wheat allergy. So, what are these sensitivities and how common are they? Let’s take a look. 

Celiac Disease 

Celiac or coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. When someone with this disorder consumes gluten, their immune system attacks the gluten and the stomach lining at the same time. This can cause severe digestive issues, nutrient deficiencies and anemia among others. Overtime exposure to gluten can result in damage to the lining of the small intestine, which can inhibit the body’s ability to properly absorb essential nutrients into the blood stream. The thing with celiac disease that it is often misdiagnosed or not explored by the patient. A certified study showed that 80% of people with celiac disease didn’t actually know they had it. It is essential that those with this disorder avoid gluten completely so diagnosis is essential if they want to eat in comfort and avoid any lasting effects. 

Gluten Sensitivity  

Non celiac gluten sensitivity is a less severe condition that also results in tiredness, severe bloating and digestive issues. People with this sensitivity can eat small amounts of gluten but if they want to avoid significant discomfort its advised that they avoid gluten as much as possible. Contrary to popular belief only about 6% of the population are affected by this uncomfortable sensitivity. 

Wheat Allergy 

Wheat is an allergen that only effects between 0.2% and 1% of the population. This allergy also causes distinct digestive issues and discomfort. Unlike the two we have addressed already it is not actually the gluten in this case that causes the distress but the wheat itself. This means that the patient is recommended to go on a wheat free diet rather than a gluten-free one, which is far less limiting. 

Quite often those suffering from IBS are also encouraged to try a gluten-free diet to alleviate their symptoms but the reasons for that will become clear in a moment.  

The big question now is: is gluten actually harmful to those of us without these diagnosed sensitivities? 

The key part of that sentence is diagnosed because that makes all the difference. A certified study was done on 393 people who were all self-diagnosed with gluten sensitivity where they were all medically tested for the first time. The results actually found that a mere 14% of these people were actually negatively affected by gluten. But if gluten wasn’t the cause of the cause for their discomfort, then why did a gluten-free diet seem to help? 

The reason for this could actually explain why this is so commonly self-diagnosed and why gluten-free diets work so well for some people and that is: FODMAPs.  FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols”

 FODMAPs are short chain carbohydrates that are found in many foods including wheat, dried fruit, artificial sweeteners, and beans among others. It just so happens that these lesser known carbohydrates are also found in wheat, which makes it very easy to confuse their effects with the effects of gluten on a sensitive body. Many people are unable to digest FODMAPs effectively and for this reason a low FODMAP diet would be beneficial to these people rather than a gluten-free diet that could let other sly FODMAPs sneak through. 


What Is Gluten? Summing Up 

In conclusion, if you are suspicious that you are sensitive to gluten go to your doctor and get tested. This way you can get correctly diagnosed and can adjust your diet accordingly rather than taking an uneducated guess that may not benefit you in the long run. For those with genuine gluten intolerances of any kind gluten is definitely the enemy but for others it may actually be the sneaky FODMAPs that are the real culprits! 

Amy Hand
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