What is gluten? The Truth About Gluten Free Foods

Wooden spoons of various gluten free flour (almond flour, amaranth seeds flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour, chick peas flour) from top view

The recent health trend of avoiding certain foods and food groups has seen gluten as one of the biggest culprits. The gluten free foods market has boomed in recent years to an estimated worth of more than £200 million per year. This is due to a rise in gluten-related health conditions in combination with some consumers now choosing gluten-free products voluntarily, believing them to be the healthier option. Over the next two posts, I will help you decide whether going gluten-free is right for you.

What is gluten?

If someone asked you “what is gluten” would you know what to say?

Gluten is a protein, or more accurately a group of several proteins, present in wheat, barley and rye. The top sources in our diets are bread, pasta, pastry, biscuits, cakes, pizza and flour, especially those made from wheat. Gluten helps foods maintain its shape and gliadin, the type found in wheat, gives dough its elastic qualities, improving its baking properties. For this reason, modern varieties of wheat have been bred specifically to have higher gluten content.

Coeliac Disease & Symptoms

Coeliac disease is an auto-immune condition affecting approximately 1% of the population. Its prevalence is on the rise, with an estimated five fold increase over the last 25 years*. People with coeliac disease have to completely avoid gluten for life, as this is the only treatment. Therefore, gluten free foods are principally aimed towards Coeliacs.

Coeliac disease causes the immune system to mistakenly react to gluten, attacking itself and causing damage and inflammation in the lining of the small intestine. As well as being a cause of symptoms itself, this also significantly impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, leading to deficiencies. Coeliac disease symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, constipation, fatigue, sudden or unexpected weight loss (but not in all cases), hair loss, mouth ulcers and anaemia.

There is also a skin disease manifestation of coeliac called dermatitis herpetiformis, which shows up as a rash on the elbows, knees, shoulders, buttocks and face, although this is extremely rare. Coeliac disease can be hard to spot and diagnose, and according to coeliac UK, only an estimated 24% of people with the condition have been diagnosed. If you suspect you could have it, do see your GP for testing. Having a close relative with coeliac increases the chances 10 fold, as there is a genetic component.

The Gluten-Free Trend

Many people have adopted labels of being ‘gluten intolerant’ or even allergic without going through the above processes. This has led to a ‘gap’ between those who believe they might have these conditions and those who actually do. Other people are choosing to go gluten-free as a method of avoiding or limiting their carbohydrate intakes for weight loss purposes or simply because they believe it’s a healthy choice.

Who Should Avoid Gluten

  • Anyone with coeliac disease must avoid gluten completely for life. This is the only treatment for the condition and a gluten free diet has to be adhered to strictly.
  • For people with a true wheat allergy, wheat must obviously be totally avoided, but the other gluten grains, barley and rye are ok.
  • Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) will usually necessitate avoiding gluten for at least a period of time, but not necessarily for life. This needs to diagnosed and monitored by a nutritionist or dietician.
If you suspect you have any of these health conditions, please see your GP. Do not make any changes to your diet until you have done so.

In the next post, I will discuss how to follow a gluten free diet in a healthy, balanced way.