Gluten-free is the new diet craze. Recently in the supermarket all sort of products are now boasting Gluten Free emblazoned on their labels. If you didn’t know any better, one would think that gluten is the worst villain ever to appear in the food supply.
Last year gluten-free product sales reached $2.64 billion dollars. Many cereal brands such as General Mills Chex are now declared to be gluten-free. Actually most people who buy these products don’t need them – the only ones they truly benefit are those people with diagnosed celiac disease or those who may be gluten sensitive. Based on the sales, it appears that a great number of people think that gluten-free means healthier for all of us.
Celiac disease is an inherited immune response to gluten. Gluten is a protein containing gliadins and glutenins found in wheat, barley, and rye flours. With celiac disease, the immune system attacks the villi, hair like projections that line the small intestine, through which nutrients are absorbed. In patients with celiac disease, their villi become flattened rendering them inefficient absorbers. Untreated gluten intolerance is associated with certain cancers, osteoporosis, infertility, skin rashes and joint pain. Diagnosing celiac disease is fairly simple: The patient’s blood is tested for gluten antibodies and by an intestinal biopsy.
Recently, celiac disease has received a great deal of attention when it was reported that its incidence is much greater than previously thought. Although the cause is unknown, celiac disease affects about one in 100 people. Celiac patients may suffer severe stomach pain and diarrhea if they eat even traces of the protein gluten. Once gluten is eliminated from the diet, celiac disease is usually manageable.
There are three classifications of intolerance to gluten: Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy. Wheat allergy is quite rare and is simply treated by wheat avoidance. Gluten sensitivity diagnosis does not meet the criteria for celiac disease but its symptoms often are similar and disappear with gluten avoidance. Some evidence suggests that gluten avoidance may be beneficial to lessen gastrointestinal or other symptoms associated with other diseases, including lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis.
There are some claims that gluten-free diets may help with weight loss but so far, no evidence clearly exists to support this claim; some studies indicate that some people actually gain weight on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten helps dough rise and gives baked goods structure and texture. Gluten-free foods often have high levels of carbohydrates including sugar – when you remove the gluten; the baked product then lacks texture and taste. So sugar and fat become the substitutes to make the product palatable. Many gluten –free baked goods are often made with non-enriched refined flours and starches that are low in fiber and protein and lack iron, folic acid and other B vitamins. Be sure to the read the ingredient labels on these gluten-free products to find the flour source. Look for beans, almonds, quinoa, brown rice that will naturally have more nutrients.
By the end of 2012, the FDA will be ruling on a standard definition for gluten-free. This will define the claim in parts per million of gluten present in the product. For now some companies test their products themselves and rely on voluntary certification programs provided by the Gluten Intolerance Group, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the Celiac Sprue Association, and the Canadian Celiac Association.
It appears that there are more cases of celiac disease than 20 years ago. This may be due to better diagnoses or that people eat more processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods and these products use wheat flour with a higher gluten content.
Another problem may be that wheat itself has changed due to crossbreeding to make it hardier, shorter and produce a higher yield. Norman Borlaug, the U.S. plant scientist behind many of these innovations, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
If you feel you are suffering from gluten-induced symptoms such as gastrointestinal distress, try going without wheat, rye and barley products for a couple of weeks. If you improve, have your doctor test just to be sure you don’t have celiac disease, which can be dangerous if untreated.
Bottom Line: Don’t rely on gluten-free products entirely. If you decide to go gluten-free, be aware of the pitfalls since all gluten-free products may not be healthy and there may be unintended consequences with avoidance of the health benefits afforded by consuming healthy whole grains. A good source for gluten-free advice is Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide by Shelley Case. A registered dietitian, Shelley Case, RD is a leading international nutrition expert on celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. She is a member of the Medical Advisory Boards of the Celiac Disease Foundation and Gluten Intolerance Group in the United States and the Professional Advisory Board of the Canadian Celiac Association.