Have you heard the term ‘gluten’ being thrown around here and there a lot in recent years but are clueless about what it actually means? Trust us; you’re not the only one. What’s surprising is that even many people who strictly follow gluten-free diets are unsure what exactly they are avoiding, and why. Don’t worry; we have compiled together this simple guide for you, which will tell you everything you need to know about gluten – what it is, why it might be bad for you, where it’s found, and how you can avoid it?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a complex mixture of proteins naturally present in wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye. It is mainly composed of roughly equal parts of two sub-proteins, gliadin and glutenin, the former being the most responsible for bringing about the adverse effects of consuming gluten.
When mixed with water and kneaded, these proteins form a sticky network of strands that has a glue-like consistency and strengthens the dough. It is this elasticity that helps to create pockets that trap air released when a leavening agent such as yeast is added to the dough and makes it rise during baking, giving baked goods a stretchy quality and a soft and chewy texture. The name gluten is actually derived from the glue-like texture it has. Due to the unique qualities gluten has, it is used as an additive in many processed foods to improve their texture and moisture retention.
What are the Complications of Eating Gluten?
While most people can consume gluten without facing any side-effects, some people are not so lucky. Eating food items containing gluten can cause significant health concerns for them, which is why they must adhere to a gluten-free diet. Let’s look at some complications of eating gluten.
According to studies, 1% of the world’s population, including three million Americans, suffers from celiac disease. A chronic autoimmune disorder is the most serious form of gluten intolerance. Upon ingesting gluten, a patient’s immune system attacks the villi, small finger-like projections lining the small intestine, damaging them. Because of this, nutrients can’t properly be absorbed into the body. Common symptoms of this disease include constipation, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, headache, and skin rashes. However, some people may not have any symptoms. Sticking to a strictly gluten-free diet is the only way to cure this disease. If celiac is not treated, patients can face many severe health complications such as anemia, nervous system disorders, and cancer.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Some people may react to gluten in spite of testing negative for celiac. An estimated 6 to 7% of the global population suffers from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. With no exact definition, the diagnosis for this condition is made when a person reacts adversely to gluten but doesn’t have celiac or some form of allergy. Symptoms include stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
People with what allergy have an intolerance towards wheat itself, and not just gluten. Hence, someone with a wheat allergy is good to go as long as they avoid wheat. They can still consume barley, rye, and other products containing gluten. That being said, most people who are allergic to wheat end up avoiding gluten altogether because the two ingredients coexist in many foods.
Where is Gluten Found?
It is important to know where gluten is found, so if need be, you know what food items you need to exclude from your diet. Gluten is found primarily in wheat, barley, and rye, as well as all of their derivatives.
Gluten makes about 85 to 90% of the protein in wheat and occurs in all its species. Wheat is present in products including flour, bread, pasta, cereals, soups, candy bars, sauces, roux, salad dressings, and bakery items. Barley can be found in brewer’s yeast, malt, beer, cereals, food coloring, and soups. Certain types of bread, beer, cereal, rye milk, and rye flour contain rye.
Because gluten is present in many foods, you won’t expect to contain it, such as some condiments and snack foods, just abstaining from foods containing grains is not enough. As mentioned earlier, gluten is added to many processed foods as a stabilizer. So even if a food item doesn’t inherently contain gluten, it might have been incorporated into it during processing.
How to Avoid Gluten?
How does one ensure a gluten-free diet then? It is definitely a challenge to be able to tell if a pre-prepared product was supplemented with gluten or unintentionally contaminated during processing. While you should opt for food items that are labeled as gluten-free, the label does not guarantee that it is completely gluten-free. Gluten is mentioned neither in the ingredients list nor on the Nutrition Facts label. Hence, make sure you have prior knowledge of which ingredients are likely to contain gluten. Be extra careful and vigilantly scour the ingredient list. If you’re unsure, you could always contact the manufacturer. Of course, all of this isn’t easy, and it’s best to avoid processed foods altogether unless you’re sure they don’t contain gluten in any form.
As far as dining out is concerned, you need to be wary of cross-contamination. Even if your dish only has gluten-free ingredients, it might have been prepared using the same utensils used for regular ingredients, hence causing cross-contamination. If you are sensitive, this can especially trigger a reaction in you. Be sure to let the chefs know about the severity of your condition prior to ordering.
To be on the safe side, it’s best to have a diet that consists of foods that are naturally gluten-free. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, yogurt, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, poultry, and eggs. Gluten-free grains and grain products include quinoa, brown rice, corn, millet, and buckwheat, amongst others.
Now that you know everything about gluten, you can decide whether you need or want to follow a gluten-free diet. If you found this content useful, and want to keep up to date with the latest healthy living tips and tricks from us, subscribe to our newsletter.