A Guide to Gluten-Free
The popularity of gluten-free products has grown tremendously over the past few years, and therefore the question of whether or not to go gluten-free is a popular one. An estimated 1 in every 100 – 200 people in North America have Celiac Disease, many of which are undiagnosed, and are unable to digest gluten, making a gluten-free diet very beneficial for many. However, when it comes to gluten-free diets, there are many things to consider; Are all gluten-free options created equal? What should a gluten-free diet look like? And how do you know if you should go gluten-free? To help provide my answers, here is my quick guide to gluten-free.
What is gluten?
Gluten refers to the proteins found in certain cereal grain’s endosperm, and it is composed of two main proteins; glutenin and gliadin. Although commonly found in wheat, gluten is also found in barley, rye, triticale (a grain that is a cross between wheat and rye), and some oats. When flour is mixed with water, it is the gluten proteins that form a sticky network that has a glue-like consistency to help provide shape to grain-based products. Gluten provides elasticity to dough making bread chewy, pizza dough elastic and noodles tender.
What are the concerns with gluten?
Gluten intolerance is one of the most common food sensitivity disease of the intestine, the most well known being celiac disease. For these individuals, their bodies produce an abnormal immune response when breaking down gluten during digestion. The immune system of a celiac reacts negatively to the presence of gluten causing damage to the inner lining of their intestinal tract which decreases their ability to absorb nutrients, specifically iron, folate, calcium, Vitamin D, protein, and fat.
Although going gluten-free is not necessarily the answer to all of everyone’s health concerns, for many it can help. It has been suggested that even for those without celiac disease, gluten in the diet can cause inflammation in the body, disturb digestion, limit nutrient absorption and therefore lead to other health concerns. This broad range of symptoms can include; weight gain, nutrition defeciencies, aching joints, depression, eczema, headaches, allergies, and chronic fatigue.
Gluten-Free vs. Free of Gluten
Whether a person has celiac disease or is concerned about gluten sensitivity, it is important to understand that there is a big difference in the way that you execute a gluten-free diet. Too often people implement a gluten-free diet by merely replacing their current breads, crackers and granola bars with gluten-free option, however they are missing the mark. Although these food products might be “gluten-free”, they are just that, food products. Processed foods are processed foods whether they contain gluten or not, and can still be damaging to the intestinal tract and impact nutrient absorption. Swapping your morning cereal for gluten-free cereal, your lunch sandwich with gluten-free bread and using gluten-free pasta at dinner does not mean that you are doing yourself any favours! Implementing a gluten-free diet in the most beneficial way means removing all processed foods, and when you need to use grains, opting for properly prepared whole grains, that do not contain gluten in the first place.
*Oats are inherently gluten-free, however the cross-contamination in production and factories cause gluten to be a concern. If you are looking to remove gluten, opt for certified gluten-free oats to ensure they are safe.
The Impacts of Grain Preparation
Although the mainstream view of gluten intolerance is very black and white; you are either have Celiac disease or you can chow down on bagels to your heart’s content, one might argue that there are many layers to this onion. Today, the way we grow, mill and process grains has changed dramatically from the way our ancestors once did. The wheat we grow today has been bred for higher yields and quicker returns, we no longer use traditional stone milling techniques for grinding flours and we no longer use traditional preparation methods, with long fermentation processes, for most of our grains products. The conventional methods for milling flours are more aggressive on wheat grains and destroy the germ which is the portion of the berry which contains its micronutrients. Grains contain a number of antinutrients such as phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors, complex sugars and gluten, that help to protect the grain, however can they bind with minerals in the digestive tract to block their absorption. Therefore, grains require careful preparation to help breakdown these antinutrients, one of which is gluten, to help “pre-digest” the grains making them more easily digested and the nutrients more bioavailable to our bodies. For instance, bread was traditionally baked with a natural sourdough starter to make the dough rise. This natural sourdough starter is formed by bacteria and yeasts that exist naturally in the air, and grow and multiply on grains, creating active live cultures which cause dough to ferment which helps to break down the antinutrients. Today, in conventional and large scale baking processes, long fermentation with natural yeasts is no longer used. Instead, factories will use dry active baker’s yeast, which significantly shortens the fermentation time, so bread can be produced quicker with less effort. The concern is that this does not allow for microbes to break down starches and proteins to allow for easier digestion and higher nutrient absorption. When not properly prepared, grains products including breads, cereals, and baked goods can be very damaging to the intestinal tract.
I am not suggesting that this is the sole cause or the answer to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, however, I think it is important to consider the manner in which we process food has a huge impact on its digestibility and nutrient absorption.
Unconventional Uses of Gluten
In addition to actual grain-based products, the additional and unconventional uses of gluten has increased our exposure to gluten multiple-fold. Due to its elasticity, gluten is now commonly used as a binder or a thickener in many processed food items, which only increases our exposure to gluten in its many unfermented forms. Everything from salad dressings to soup stocks, cheesecake fillings, and energy bars can contain added gluten.
Common Hidden Sources of Gluten
- Malt Vinegar
- Imitation Bacon
- Imitation Seafood
- Meat Balls
- Meat Loaf
- Processed Meats
- Soup Bases
- Veggie Burgers
- Soy Sauce
- Energy Bars
- Granola Bars
- Candy Bars
- Salad Dressings
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Cheesecake Filling
What to do?
As with any food, it is important to consider that “one man’s food is another man’s poison”. Although a particular food might be considered “healthy” and work well for one individual, it might not work for another. For most people, without celiac disease, I typically recommend avoiding gluten in its unfermented forms and focusing on gluten-free grains as sources of carbohydrates in the diet; rice, quinoa, buckwheat, corn and some oatmeal. If you are looking for a bread, opt for a naturally leavened sourdough to ensure you are eating wheat in its fermented form. If you suspect an allergy or severe intolerance to gluten, contact at healthcare practitioner to set up testing.