Gluten: The Facts and The Fad

I nev­er quite under­stood what gluten was til my wife came into my life — she has celi­ac dis­ease, which has­n’t result­ed in huge changes in my life, but now unless I’m buy­ing just for myself, I try to be a bit more aware of the breads and grains that I buy: No more whole wheat pur­chas­es for fam­i­ly con­sump­tion! Not a big deal, by any means, and it keeps my wife’s insides from tor­ment­ing her.

an infographic image explaining gluten, celiac disease, wheat allergies, and more

Today, the web­site I Waste So Much Time shared this info­graph­ic talk­ing about what gluten is; from it, I learned that celi­ac dis­ease is quite a bit more seri­ous than I under­stood it to be. I did­n’t real­ize that actu­al dam­age could be done to a per­son­’s body if they have the dis­ease and eat gluten; pri­or to now, I always took it as some­thing akin to lac­tose intol­er­ance or a food aller­gy that caus­es indi­ges­tion. The more you know…

Here’s a tran­script of the infographic:

You’ve prob­a­bly seen it on all man­ner of food at this point. “GLUTEN FREE.”

You’ve heard peo­ple swear by it. Maybe you swear by it. Or maybe you’ve made fun of those who do.

But it seems a lot of peo­ple abstain­ing from gluten or mak­ing fun of those who do don’t have any idea what it actu­al­ly is. “Bad for you?” “A food thing?”

Gluten is a com­bi­na­tion of two pro­teins found in some grains such as wheat, bar­ley, and rye. Glutenin + gliadin = gluten. Not ride, pota­toes, or corn. It’s not a “carb.”

Its mol­e­c­u­lar com­po­si­tion is what makes dough stretchy.

Gluten is nota poi­son. It’s just a pro­tein. Unless you have Celi­ac Dis­ease,a rare autoim­mune dis­or­der of the small intestine.

When some­body with Celi­ac Dis­ease eats gluten their body mounts an immune response that dam­ages the struc­tures respon­si­ble for absorb­ing nutrients.

Celi­ac Dis­ease is genet­ic, and only accounts for 1%of peo­ple world­wide. Yet some­where around 18 mil­lionAmer­i­cans report hav­ing a gluten sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Six times more than there should be.

“I can’t eat gluten…”
“Oh, I total­ly get that too! My tum­my aches when­ev­er I eat bagels.”
“Uh, no. I could actu­al­ly die of malnutrition.”
I know RIGHT?!

What could be account­ing for these numbers?

Some­times, peo­ple mis­take a wheat aller­gy for gluten intol­er­ance. Wheat is one of the top eight food aller­gens in the Unit­ed States.

  • MILK
  • EGGS
  • SOY
  • FISH

It dif­fers from Celi­ac Dis­ease in that reac­tions can occur from con­tact alone, such as inhal­ing wheat flour.

But in cas­es where Celi­ac and aller­gies are ruled out, doc­tors may diag­nose a Non-Celi­ac Gluten  Sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

NCGS does­n’t have any good bio­mark­ers, so it isn’t well under­stood as an illness.

In 2011, Peter Gib­son, a gas­troen­terol­o­gist at Monash Uni­ver­si­ty, con­duct­ed a study that found that gluten-con­tain­ing diets can cause gas­troin­testi­nal dis­tress in peo­ple with­out Celi­ac Disease.

[This secured] gluten as the west­ern world’s boogey­man pro­tein of choice, and boost­ing the gluten-free industry.

Only in 2013, Gib­son per­formed a more rig­or­ous study and found “…absolute­ly no spe­cif­ic response to gluten.” You know sci­ence is work­ing when a sci­en­tist can prove them­selves wrong.

What gives? The answer may lie in the “noce­bo effect” in which an inert sub­stance caus­es harm to a patient. NOCEBO: From Latin “I shall harm.”

Peo­ple who self-diag­nose as gluten insen­si­tive may expect to feel bad when told they are eat­ing gluten, and there­fore… …feel bad.

“I knew it! They’re faking!”

Not so fast! Sci­en­tists are cur­rent­ly study­ing a group of hard-to-digest sub­stances known togeth­er as “FODMAPs”:

  • Fruc­tans
  • Fruc­tose
  • Lac­tose
  • Galac­tans
  • Poly­ols

So while gluten may not be the cul­prit, it does­n’t mean the prob­lem is all their heads.

In the mean­time, the gluten-free food mar­ket has grown by leaps and bounds since Gib­son’s ini­tial study. And while it’s a dif­fi­cult mar­ket to define, most esti­mates place it square­ly in the BILLIONS of dollars.

Fad or not, this has had a pos­i­tive impact for peo­ple with celi­ac dis­ease who now have a pletho­ra of gluten-free prod­ucts to choose from.

Even if some of it nev­er had gluten in the first place.

Gluten-free diets aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly health­i­er than a nor­mal, bal­anced diet.

As com­pa­nies may replace whole wheat grains with refined grains that are low in nutrients.

Baked goods may also con­tain more sug­ar to make up for the loss of doughy stretch­i­ness. Also, they’re more expensive.

So before you hop on the gluten-free band­wag­on, it’s impor­tant to con­sult your doctor.

And if you think you may have a gluten intol­er­ance, get­ting test­ed for Celi­ac Dis­ease or a wheat aller­gy is the only way to know for sure.

So eat healthy with the right information—or at least the cur­rent right information.

Source: Gluten: The Facts And The Fad That You Should Know

Rick Beckman