What is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a mixture of two proteins, glutelin and gliadin found in wheat, oat, rye and barley.  Gluten is what makes pizza and bread dough stretchy.  Gluten has really gotten a bad rep over the past few years, frequently labeled as a “bad” food.  An estimated 1.6 million Americans eliminate gluten from their diets by choice.  Despite it’s popularity, there is no evidence to support any of the health claims made in favor of adopting a gluten-free diet, unless you’ve been diagnosed with the immune disorder, celiac disease.

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Celiac disease is genetic and only occurs in 1% of the population.  The body responds to gliadin by damaging the intestines, severely impairing normal absorption of nutrients.  Symptoms of celiac disease may or may not include foul-smelling diarrhea, weight loss, bloating, growth failure in children, weakness and fatigue.  Diagnosis includes an intestinal biopsy, followed by a gluten-free diet, then an additional biopsy to evaluate improvement.  There are a couple of related disorders, such as wheat allergies which only effect 0.1% of the people but, can be treated by avoidance of wheat only, a far less restrictive diet option.  Testing for food allergies is not simple and includes proof that a food causes an adverse reaction and verification of immunologic involvement.

I don’t know why the public has embraced the gluten-less fad, but it’s popularity has taken such a hold that the manufacturing of gluten-free products is estimated to reach 5 billion dollars this year!  There is no evidence that a gluten-free diet is healthier, as this rigid pattern of eating may restrict many of the nutrients your body needs, like carbohydrates, iron, folate, niacin, zinc and fiber.  Gluten-free products are certainly not fat free and often contain higher amounts of calories and fat.

Some blame symptoms of autism, seizure disorders and mental health issues on gluten. Again, there is no clear evidence that gluten plays any role in these conditions.  Self-diagnosis and treatment options not approved by a physician and not backed by scientific evidence can be downright dangerous.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but without a diagnosis of celiac disease or a confirmed allergy, avoiding any particular group of foods is not a good idea.

Something you may not know: Manufacturing companies admit that despite the known consumer confusion, gluten-free products continue to be sold and marketed simply because they sell.


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