On our way through the nutrition alphabet, it's time for G...how could it not be gluten? You can hardly have a conversation (here on the diet-conscious West Coast at least!) without the word popping up.
You know, in my education, I actually didn't learn a lot about Celiac Disease and gluten. It was only when I started my career that I became immersed in the world of the gluten free and nowadays, gluten free advocates are multiplying like rabbits. As a dietitian, it is impossible to ignore...and for the public, an important topic on which to set a few things straight. So let's start with a simple definition.
What is gluten?
Gluten refers to a family of storage proteins, also called prolamins, that are found in wheat, barley and rye and all grains related to (and commonly contaminated with) them. Spelt and Kamut contain gluten. Most commercial oats are cross-contaminated with gluten. For this reason, wheat free and gluten free do not mean the same thing. This is an important fact to remember because many I see are confused by this. Since gluten is a protein found in wheat AND other grains, all gluten free foods will be also free of wheat but since gluten is found in other grains, a wheat free food might still have gluten.
Is gluten bad for me?
It depends on who you ask. Us darned health professionals have differing views on this question, based on our interpretation of the research available. In conventional medical thinking, only those of us with Celiac Disease or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity need to avoid gluten. According to best estimates, 1% of us in North America have Celiac Disease, an auto-immune disease that causes the body to attack itself when gluten is ingested. Celiac Disease is NOT an allergy to gluten. Gluten is the trigger that activates the disease process in those who have it.
Dr Alessio Fasano, of the Cleveland Clinic, also estimates that a further 6% of us have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, which is non-immune mediated yet still causes health concerns when gluten is consumed. Doing the quick math, that should leave 93% of us who can safely and healthfully consume gluten. However, advocates of many popular diets including the Wheat Belly Diet and the Paleo Diet, believe that all of us should stop consuming gluten. There, the research becomes a little more fuzzy.
We'll get further into the question of whether we should avoid gluten in the next instalment...