What Actually Is Gluten?

What Actually Is Gluten

Hands up, who’s heard of gluten? Now keep them up if you know what gluten actually is… Chances are your hand went down just then. Metaphorically of course, nobody expected you to actually raise your hand. But if you did lower your metaphorical hand, don’t worry; you probably weren’t the only one. Gluten is one of those things that everybody has heard of but barely anyone knows what it actually does. Kind of like the Illuminati. Or Kim Kardashian.

Even quite a lot of self-diagnosed coeliacs – that’s the name for gluten-intolerants – have no idea what it is they are avoiding. This Jimmy Kimmel video is proof enough of that. This is strange enough, although perhaps not when you consider that less than 1 in 100 people are believed to actually suffer from coeliac disease, yet around 1 in 5 have bought gluten-free products in the last six months – with supermarket sales of gluten-free food doubling in the past year. It gets even stranger when you consider that gluten-free products are more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. So some people are actually shelling out more money for products they don’t need and don’t know what they are supposed to achieve.

On the flip side, actual GP diagnosed coeliacs more than likely do know what gluten is and how it interacts with – and subsequently disrupts – their digestive system. It is the gluten-free trendsters that are likely to misunderstand about gluten. Whether you are genuinely gluten-intolerant, are just weighing up potential health benefits of going gluten-free, or you just want to arm yourself with enough knowledge to defraud a bandwagon-jumper you might know, read on to find out what gluten is all about.

What is it?

Put simply, gluten is a protein composite that is primarily found in wheat – but is also present in other grains, like rye, barley and, to a lesser-extent, oats.

Put less simply, gluten is composed of two separate proteins: glutenin and gliadin. It is usually found stuck to starch (hence the name gluten – derived from the Latin for glue) and comes from the endosperm of grain seeds.

Where is it?

The main gluten-containing foods are those rich in wheat or starch; especially cereals, bread, pasta, pastries, flour and pizza. Since many processed foods now include grain-based ingredients, gluten can also be found in unexpected places like soup, yoghurts, and ice cream.

Gluten is even hidden away in foods without you knowing about it; as compound ingredients that make up less than 25% of a product don’t need their trace ingredients labeled. This means that something like the tomato paste in a larger product can be a secret store of gluten, thanks to the grains it contains but doesn’t have to mention.

Why is it a problem?

For 99% of us, gluten isn’t a problem. But for those with coeliac disease, gluten can’t always be properly digested – leading to intestinal surfaces becoming damaged and inflamed. This in turn leads to poor nutrient absorption of various fats, vitamins and minerals.

What symptoms can it cause?

The most common symptoms associated with an adverse reaction to gluten are diarrhoea or constipation (two quite opposite reactions), as well as abdominal pain, wind, and flaky skin rashes. Bear in mind that sufferers may experience various combinations of the above and in varying degrees of intensity.

If left undiagnosed or untreated, coeliac disease has the potential to cause longer-lasting damage in the form of iron deficiency anemia, weight loss, chronic fatigue, and osteoporosis.

How is intolerance diagnosed?

If you notice a combination of the symptoms listed above whenever you eat grain-based foods, you should visit your GP. They can administer a simple blood test to screen for particular antibodies and diagnose a potential gluten intolerance.

It is worth noting that milder versions of the symptoms can occur, which may only be due a mild or temporary wheat intolerance.

Who should avoid it?

Unless you genuinely do have an intolerance to gluten, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about; so you shouldn’t have any reason to avoid it. One caveat, however, seems to be those with irritable bowel syndrome. IBS sufferers may well benefit from decreasing their gluten intake, but this is mainly because gluten-free products are also wheat-free – making them more easily digestible.

For the majority of the population there is no reason why gluten-free should become a way of life. There may be some health benefits from cutting down (more energy, for example), but this is as much to do with reducing your consumption of starch- and carb-rich foods as it is avoiding gluten. As with most food groups, moderation is key.

If you still feel after reading this that going gluten-free is for you then you’ll be happy to know there has been a vast improvement in both quality and quantity of gluten-free products in recent years. Not too long ago, it was the case that various “free from” ranges were limited to a shelf or two in most supermarkets, but the variety of options have expanded so much they can often be found on a whole aisle of their own now. Gluten-free bread, cakes and pasta are all commonplace, as are pizzas and pancakes that contain zero gluten. There are even gluten-free beers on the shelves, so your nights out are also catered for if you are a coeliac.

Let us know your experiences with gluten. Have you gone gluten-free? How has it impacted your life? Would you recommend a gluten-free diet for general health purposes, or do you feel it’s a waste of time if you aren’t intolerant?

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