Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month

Eleanor King

Gluten-free diets have become extremely popular in the last few years, but what’s the big deal with gluten? Learn more about gluten, what it means to be gluten free, and how gluten impacts different peoples’ digestive systems. 

Why is going gluten free such a popular option?

With widespread information about gluten-free lifestyles more readily available, the idea that gluten-free diets were healthier than a standard diet began to grow in popularity. This was especially true for those who were looking to lose weight, as gluten became synonymous with carbs and therefore “unhealthy” foods. 

Additionally, with better medical understanding of Celiac Disease, more people were diagnosed, making it a well-known problem. While the disease itself is not new, the awareness surrounding its association with gluten and digestive issues has grown quickly. Gluten quickly became vilified after this, even among those who did not have the disease.

There are a multitude of products on the market now that are gluten free, making it easy to avoid gluten for those with or without Celiac Disease. Many of these modern products boast additional features, such as higher levels of protein, more dense vitamin and mineral offerings, and overall “healthier” choices compared to their glutenous counterparts.

What’s the problem with gluten? 

But what makes gluten such a problem for so many people and why is it the cause of an autoimmune disease? The science behind gluten gives us a closer look at how it interacts with the human body.

Gluten is a general name for a type of protein that is found in many wheat products, specifically those in cereal grains. It’s a naturally occurring protein that most people recognize as part of breads, pasta, and baked goods. There are two main types of gluten protein, glutenin and gliadin. The make-up of gluten is split about even into these two. 

Gliadin is the protein responsible for most of the negative health effects of gluten. It’s specific amino acid sequences are what causes abnormal immune responses in those who have Celiac Disease. 

More often than not, “gluten” is a term used to describe the act of these proteins giving food its shape and acting like a binder or glue to hold foods together. When flour mixes with water, the gluten proteins form a sticky network that makes the dough elastic and also is the reason the dough rises.

What’s the difference between Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance?

While there are some who choose to live gluten-free lifestyles, many people who avoid gluten either have Celiac Disease or some level of gluten intolerance. These two problems adversely impact the digestive tract and can lead to a number of different symptoms and health problems.

When people are testing for Celiac Disease, a gliadin antibody test is performed. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly thinks that the gluten proteins are foreign invaders. This leads to the body attacking the gluten, as well as the lining of the gut, causing nutrient deficiencies, anemia, digestive problems, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Elimination of gluten in one’s diet is the only way to treat Celiac Disease.

Gluten intolerance is categorized by digestive discomfort associated with eating gluten, but without the response to gluten that the immune system has for those with Celiac Disease. Individuals with gluten intolerance typically have other underlying digestive issues that are aggravated by consuming gluten. Gluten-free diets are often the best way to figure out what the problem is, or following a FODMAP diet to root out harmful foods. 

Can you be gluten free if you don’t have Celiac Disease or a gluten sensitivity?

In short, being gluten free is an option for anyone. There are few negative side-effects that occur for those who choose to go gluten free without having an intolerance or sensitivity. One of the side effects of becoming gluten free is that some people can build up an intolerance or sensitivity overtime. After removing gluten from one’s diet for several months, eating a bowl of pasta or piece of bread could cause digestive discomfort. 

The warning from most doctors and nutritionists is that when people remove entire groups of food from their diet, they might be missing important nutrients and fiber that must be replaced. In today’s modern world, those needed nutrients are easily replaced with other foods. The main takeaway from this is that those on a gluten-free diet should make sure to moderate their intake of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. 

One of the main reasons people go gluten free is the perceived idea that it is healthier. While this is true with proper diet and exercise, simply swapping cookies with a gluten-free sweet does not mean it’s healthy. Gluten-free junk food is still just junk food. Keeping an eye on sugar and fats is still important when it comes to swapping out gluten for other options. 

What does it mean to be Certified Gluten Free? 

According to the FDA, products labeled “Certified Gluten Free” must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. For brands to be labeled as such, they must undergo testing every year in accordance with the Gluten-Free Certification Organization and other organizations. This process can be lengthy and expensive, which means not all gluten-free products will carry the label if their producers cannot afford the certification. 

There are three main organizations who offer certification for gluten-free foods, including The Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), the Celiac Support Association (CSA), and the Allergen Control Group. Each of them has their own tests and standards for the levels of gluten they will allow.

Since all of the products and brands that are “Certified Gluten Free” must undergo this testing, gluten-free consumers can feel confident about buying these products. They can feel safe knowing that these products do not contain levels of gluten that could cause potential digestive problems. 

Looking for easy gluten-free pasta substitutes? Check out this article

Here are three great wintery and gluten-free recipes to make this month: