One of today’s fastest growing new dietary trends is the proliferation of foods labeled “gluten free” on the shelves of supermarkets across the country.
With the growing popularity of gluten-free diets in recent years, both the quality and variety of commercially available gluten-free products has greatly increased, enabling them to go from a niche market to mainstream status. For example, Bob’s Red Mill, has been selling gluten-free grains and flours for more than 30 years, alongside its traditional gluten-containing varieties. But according to an article published in the New York Times last year, in response to the increasing public demand, the company has expanded its line of gluten-free products to 70 items, and has seen their sales increase at a rate of 35 percent annually. Hershy Lieber of The Gluten Free Shoppe in Brooklyn, NY says, “these days it is easier than ever to be on a gluten free diet since there are so many more products and sources for gluten free foods.”
Gluten is a combination of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin found in the grain produced by wheat, barley, rye and other plants. These proteins are largely indigestible. Our bodies lack the enzymes needed to break them down to absorb their nutrients, and their presence can cause our immune systems to react negatively to them by producing a variety of symptoms.
Celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population, is the most extreme form of the reaction to the gluten proteins. It causes damage to the small intestine, severe digestive problems, interference with the body’s ability to absorb other nutrients, and inflammations affecting other parts of the body. A strict gluten-free diet has long been an integral part of the standard treatment for people diagnosed with celiac disease.
Beyond Treating Celiac Disease
In recent years, research has identified other conditions related to the body’s sensitivity to gluten. Gluten is suspected to be a major contributing factor to Chron’s Disease. It has been associated with a variety of other intestinal problems and inflammations, such as irritable bowel syndrome, as well more generalized symptoms, such as extreme fatigue, bone and joint pain, and headaches. Many people with these symptoms have reported that they disappeared once they eliminated gluten from their diets.
Other conditions which may be related to gluten sensitivity or intolerance include fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorders and diabetes.
Some parents of children with autism have reported that after they switched them to a gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet, they noticed improvements in both speech and behavior. However, there have been no scientific studies conducted to test these findings.
There has also been a movement among some athletes to eliminate gluten from their meals before competing in long distance races, in order to avoid gluten-related digestive problems which can interfere with their performance. The meals these athletes eat before competing still contain large amounts of carbohydrates to build up their energy reserves, but the carbs comes from pasta and other foods which are not made from gluten-containing grains. Many of these athletes believe that their gluten-free diet leads to improved digestion and absorption of nutrients, which then translates into improved performance.
Cutting Out More Than Just Wheat
A gluten-free diet involves much more than avoiding bread, cakes, and pasta made from ordinary or whole grain wheat flour. Other common sources of gluten include barley, rye, bulgur, durham, farina, graham flour, matzo meal, semolina, spelt and triticale.
Gluten is commonly found in convenience foods. Gluten-containing flour is used to thicken many gravies, custards, soups and sauces. It also can be found in many other types of processed foods, such as ice cream or ketchup, as a flavoring or stabilizing ingredient. Most beers contain gluten, but grape juice and most wines do not, while the gluten status of whiskeys and liquors needs to be investigated individually.
We also may ingest gluten from non-food sources. It is often used as binding agent in medications and vitamins. It can be found in some cosmetics, such as lipstick, lip balms and lip gloss. It may even be an ingredient in the sealing glue used on envelopes and stamps or play dough.
Any product which lists wheat in its ingredients, or which is made in a factory which also produces wheat products, is not gluten-free But it doesn’t stop there.