Just a few years ago, very few Americans knew what gluten was. Today, according to one survey, almost one third of Americans are trying to avoid the element found in grain. In growing numbers, the world’s biggest food makers and restaurant chains are changing recipes and labels to capitalize on the gluten-free trend, creating a multibillion-dollar business out of manufacturing products sans gluten. But are they really better for you?
What is Gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape. Gluten is a combination of gliadin and glutenin, which is joined with starch in various grains. Gliadin is what enables bread to rise properly while glutenin is the major protein in wheat flour, making up 47% of the total protein content.
What Is Celiac Disease? When people with Celiac Disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. The tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine are damaged or destroyed. Called villi, they normally allow nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished, regardless of the quantity or quality of food eaten.
What is Gluten Intolerance And Gluten Sensitivity? Some people suffer from gluten intolerance, which is different from Celiac in that it is not an immune mediated response. The symptoms of gluten intolerance appear after eating wheat or other foods containing gluten, which can cause abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence. Researchers are still investigating whether gluten intolerance over a long period causes permanent intestinal damage.
More commonplace is gluten sensitivity, which affects approximately 18 million people in the United States and is essentially a less severe form of gluten intolerance. The gastrointestinal symptoms are similar to those that affect individuals with Celiac Disease, but gluten sensitivity does not cause damage to the intestinal lining.
Is Gluten Free Healthy? Gluten-free lovers of the world may be in for a surprise. Many health experts now say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free unless you have one of the above-mentioned issues. Indeed, according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar – something some food makers don’t dispute, saying they are simply responding to consumer demand without making health claims.
Where there is a disease, there is a marketing opportunity. As celiac disease has gained notoriety, an increasing number of people have begun self-diagnosing as gluten sensitive, and consequently have adopted the gluten-free trend. It’s also been touted as a cure-all for a number of maladies including migraines and fibromyalgia, though there is little scientific data to support such claims.
If it’s not medically necessary for you to go gluten-free, focus on sticking with whole grains. You can have whole wheat, you can have products made of barley and rye, and you can have the naturally gluten-free grains – quinoa, amaranth, and millet, which are very healthy. Whole grains, lean proteins plus plenty of fruits and vegetables is much better path toward healthier eating.