What exactly is gluten and are you gluten intolerant?

Gluten-free bread, gluten-free soy sauce, gluten-free pasta, even gluten-free oreo’s: all products that I saw during my latest grocery shop. Gluten-free items have become readily available, so much so, that the industry has soared to a 4.3 billion dollar industry. But, what even is gluten and should you be reaching for the gluten-full or gluten-free version of your favorite foods?


Gluten is a protein?

Gluten is aptly named for its glue-like properties, keeping foods in their desired shape. This glue-like property is what allows the dough to be elastic/stretchy, and is why bread rises. Gluten is an “umbrella” of the protein that is found within grains like wheat, rye, barley, semolina, farina, farro, graham, wheat and so on. Gluten is derived from two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. It is naturally occurring but can also be added to other products (aka the aforementioned glue). As such, gluten can be present in whole and processed foods - but as gluten is used so much in food production as a thickener or stabilizer, a “gluten-free” stamp on a product is not always an indicator if gluten is present or not. As such, in the US, all products labelled “gluten-free” have to contain less than 20 parts per million gluten, as it is not possible to detect levels lower than this. So actually, there are little bits of gluten even in “gluten-free” foods. 


Should you say Gluten-tag to gluten in your diet? 

Despite the rise of gluten-free products and diets, the majority of people can tolerate gluten in their diets with zero adverse side effects. There are people with specific health conditions that can not tolerate gluten. This includes people who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, irritable bowel syndrome, gluten ataxia and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an immune reaction in the small intestine to gluten and impacts 0.7 of US people. This negative reaction can damage the small intestine, which over time, can result in a lack of nutrient absorption. This can cause fatigue, anemia, weight loss and more serious issues over time. Symptoms that might be warning you of celiac disease are diarrhea, bloating, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, loss of bone density, numbness of feet and fingers, and itchy skin. It is important to note that some bloating is healthy - especially if it's an alone symptom and can often be treated by ginger tea, going for a post-meal stroll or even taking a bath. If you notice the aforementioned symptoms for 2 weeks consistently, or have a family background of celiac disease, you should speak to a doctor. They can test you by a serology test (blood test), biopsy, IgA test, or genetic testing to determine the diagnosis. While there is no cure for celiac disease, people manage by following a gluten-free diet. If one doesn't test positive for celiac disease, it doesn't mean there is no intolerance to gluten as around 0.5 to 13% of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These are similar symptoms to celiac but also brain fog, depression, and fatigue. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is when a person reacts negatively to gluten, but they don't test positive for celiac disease (However, some experts do not believe that this is a legitimate condition.)  Ultimately, there are no methods of testing gluten if you rule out celiacs besides trying to remove it from your diet and keeping track of how you feel. 


Removing gluten from your diet is considered “harmless.” There is no nutrient in gluten that you cannot obtain from other foods. Naturally, gluten-free foods are fruits, vegetables, beans, eggs, unprocessed lean meats and fish and of course, gluten-free items. That said, slapping on a gluten-free label does not make that product a healthy food - some gluten-free junk food is still junk food. Some people have claimed they choose to go gluten-free without any negative digestive symptom or diagnosis as they feel more energized, can control their weight better and have improved overall health, but this has not been proven through sufficient research. 


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