Latest update: September 15th, 2013
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.
The Importance of the Gluten-Free Label
Gluten comes in many forms in our processed food, but it is rarely named explicitly in product ingredient lists. It can be a hidden additive in another listed ingredient. For example, gluten is often present in ingredients listed as vegetable proteins and starch, modified food starch and malt flavoring, including maltodextrine or dextrine. The listing of “natural flavoring” on an ingredient list can also camouflage the presence of gluten.
Unfortunately, there is no specific US law requiring the listing of the gluten content of products on their label. Even close inspection of the ingredients listed on a package may not reveal whether or not it is gluten-free.
For these reasons, many people who are gluten-sensitive will not buy any processed food whose label does not explicitly state that it is gluten-free, or bear the widely recognized GF symbol. This is much like many kosher consumers who will not buy any processed food product which does not bear a recognized hashgocha.
The FDA has proposed a rule requiring that any product which advertises itself as “gluten-free” on the label must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten from any source, including cross-contamination.
According to Kimberly Ullner, Founder and President of 1-2-3 Gluten Free, “it is imperative that consumers who wish to purchase gluten-free foods do so from reputable companies. Products produced in dedicated gluten-free facilities and/or certified as gluten-free give consumers added confidence that they truly are gluten-free.”
The Challenge of Preventing Cross-Contamination
The problem of cross-contamination is a serious one. Considerable care must be taken to prevent cross-contamination in both commercial and home food preparation. In a food factory, even a tiny amount of wheat flour left on the equipment can cross-contaminate an otherwise gluten-free product, and those trace amounts of gluten can often trigger symptoms in those with gluten sensitivity.
Cross-contamination can also easily occur in the home kitchen. Gluten is a sticky substance which is hard to remove, and it comprises about 12% of ordinary wheat flour. During the usual preparation for baking, very fine wheat flour dust is released into the air, where it can linger for more than a day. During that time, that flour dust will contaminate any gluten-free foods being prepared in the same kitchen, even if the surfaces have been thoroughly cleaned. It is also very difficult to prevent accidental cross-contamination at the table during buffet-style meals in which both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods are being served.
As a practical measure, households with a family member who is on a gluten-free diet often find it much simpler to simply ban all non-gluten-free products from the kitchen and home because of the high risk of accidental cross-contamination. These households frequently report that others in the home also benefit from the switch to a gluten-free diet, even though they had not been previously diagnosed as having a gluten sensitivity.
The Gluten-Free Kosher Connection
Research has established that celiac disease and other manifestations of gluten sensitivity, such as Crohn’s disease, have a strong genetic component. Since Crohn’s disease, is very prevalent among the descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe, there has been a proliferation of gluten-free products with kosher supervision and “heimishe” brands aimed specifically at the kosher market.
Not too long ago, someone looking for kosher gluten-free food products had to seek them out in health food stores, or on specialized websites catering to Jews with Crohn’s disease, but today such products are readily available from local supermarkets which maintain clearly designated “gluten-free” shelves and freezer cases.
In addition, some popular national brands have begun to prominently identify those of their processed food products which are “gluten-free” on their packaging, such as certain varieties of Chex cereals produced by General Mills.
Gluten-free food products have to use a variety of substitutes to provide the qualities normally supplied by gluten-containing ingredients. For example, the flour used in gluten-free baked goods is typically made from almonds, rice, sorghum, corn, soybeans or other kinds of beans to provide the dietary fiber and protein normally provided by wheat. Acceptable sources of starch for those on a gluten-free diet include potatoes and tapioca.
Gluten-free diets are typically heavy in fresh fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, meats, eggs and many kinds of dairy products. Those on gluten-free diets should be careful to make sure they are getting sufficient amounts of iron, Vitamins B12 and D, magnesium and dietary fiber. Note that gluten-free foods are not necessarily low-calorie or low in sugar, further complicating the gluten-free challenge for those with diabetes or who are seeking to lose weight.
Home-made Gluten-Free Foods
Some doctors suggest that people who are handy in the kitchen would be better off making their own gluten-free foods at home rather than relying on expensive, commercially-made gluten-free products. The necessary ingredients to produce your own gluten-free baked goods are now readily available in many supermarkets or online. These include a variety of gluten-free flours made from sweet potato, sorghum, teff and oat, and ingredients like xanthan gum to improve the texture of gluten-free baked goods.
There have also been scores of cookbooks published in recent years featuring gourmet-quality gluten-free dishes, and giving home cooks tips for the successful substitution of gluten-free ingredients into traditional recipes.
The authors of these cookbooks have already gone through the trial and error process to come up with their own formulas and substitutions that yield baked goods of comparable quality to those made with from traditional wheat flour.
Oat flour is sometimes used as a substitute for wheat in gluten-free breads and baked goods, but that practice is controversial. Some researchers believe that gluten-free oat flour may also serve as an allergen for those with celiac disease. As a practical matter, oat flour is often contaminated by gluten from wheat, either in the milling process, or when the oats are grown in the same fields which were previously used for growing. However, for kosher consumers on gluten-free diets, the ability to use oat flour is important, because you cannot make a brocha of “hamotzi” over bread made from the other available gluten-free flour substitutes. This is of special significance on Shabbos, when there is a requirement for “lechem mishna,” and on Yom Tov.
Behind the Rise in Gluten Sensitivity
The rate of celiac disease is on the rise, doubling about every 20 years. New evidence suggests that as many as 1 in 10 people today are gluten sensitive or gluten intolerant, but unlike celiac disease, there is no specific diagnostic blood test available for the other two conditions.
The most practical way to find out whether you have a gluten sensitivity is to go on a strict gluten-free diet for several weeks and then see how you feel. It is not good enough to just reduce your gluten intake. If the diet is going to do you any good, you must eliminate all gluten consumption for at least several weeks before you will start to notice a significant improvement. However, because gluten sensitivity has been linked to so many different health conditions, you might be surprised to find how much of difference the diet can make. The only way to find out for sure is to actually try it, but first check with your doctor or another authority you trust to make sure that your gluten-free diet will meet all of your essential nutritional needs.
People who are gluten sensitive may not have to eliminate gluten from their diets entirely in order to see the benefits. According to Ms. Ullner, “There is a continuum. I’ve met people who indicate that they can eat one piece of wheat bread every three or four days and they’re fine; others will say, they have to be as strict as celiacs — it varies greatly by individual.”
Why is Gluten So Harmful?
There are various theories.
Some researchers believe that the symptoms of gluten sensitivity and intolerance may be triggered, as in celiac disease, by specific, genetically-inherited factors in our immune systems. Others attribute the symptoms to gluten’s interference with the body’s ability to properly absorb certain key nutrients, which would explain why the symptoms clear up after the gluten intake has stopped. Some subscribe to the controversial “leaky gut syndrome” theory, which suggests that the presence of gluten in our diet triggers a mechanism that breaks down the lining of the intestine. This permits the toxins, microbes and other harmful substances normally contained by the intestinal to break out into the rest of the body, where they are attacked by the immune system, resulting in the symptoms associated with gluten intolerance.
Dr. Mark Harmon, an authority in the new field of Functional Medicine and the author of several best-selling books on UltraWellness, blames the sharp increase in gluten-related diseases to key changes in the new high yield strain of dwarf wheat that was developed by Dr. Norman Borlaug, and for which Borlaug won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for increasing the world’s food supply. According to Harmon, the dwarf wheat produces a larger variety of gluten proteins which can trigger celiac disease and the other symptoms of gluten sensitivity and intolerance. Dr. Harmon says that the new wheat also has more starch and substances which increase the appetite, which have contributed to the obesity epidemic. He therefore recommends a wheat-free diet for everyone, whether or not they show signs of gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
While the debate in the scientific community still rages over these theories, it is an indisputable fact that a gluten-free diet works for people with celiac disease, and may offer significant health benefits for many others. It is also far easier and convenient today for people to try a gluten-free diet for themselves and their families, in order to make up their own minds about it.
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