Along with non-GMO and locally sourced, gluten-free is definitely one of the biggest buzz words in food these days. Everyone and her mom seems to be ditching gluten, and you’re probably wondering if you should, too. Earlier this month, the FDA made an official ruling on what “gluten-free” means (if it seems obvious, remember, this is the government negotiating with food companies and ingredient lobbyists we’re talking about—nothing is ever that easy). Here’s what you need to know.
Why Gluten Matters
Before a few years ago, you probably couldn’t find a single person on a crowded street who had ever heard of gluten. Now, it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Whether they can actually define it, however, is a different question entirely.
Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as barley, rye and wheat (including many flours, bulgur, farina, semolina and spelt). Oats can be contaminated with wheat during growing and processing stages, so they are often included on the list of gluten-containing grains—although natively they are gluten free. Millions of Americans (but not hundreds of millions, and probably not tens of millions) have some levels of gluten sensitivity. Being unable to properly digest gluten can lead to a host of symptoms ranging from gas, diarrhea and constipation to joint pain, fatigue, eczema and bone loss. No fun. They can come on several hours to several days after ingestion.
Intolerance can be anything from disruption of your normal gut bacteria to a true allergy that generally presents with more consistent and bothersome symptoms. General intolerance results in vague symptoms like abdominal pain and indigestion. Gluten allergy can be confirmed with allergy tests. The most persistent and worst form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which antibodies attack the enzyme in the wall of your gut that is responsible for breaking down gluten. When this enzyme, called tissue transglutaminase, can’t function, the presence of gluten in the digestive system causes inflammation in the small intestine and limits the body’s ability to absorb important proteins, minerals, vitamins and fats.
Problem on the Rise
If it seems like more and more people are suddenly crying celiac, you’re not imagining things. A researcher at the Mayo Clinic released a study in 2010 saying that there are four times as many people with the disease today as there were 60 years ago. Why the increase? His theory is that the selective breeding of wheat may (unintentionally) have boosted the grain’s gluten levels. Add that to the difference in diet today versus what people ate in the 1950s—we’re looking at you, crackers, whole wheat pasta and frozen burritos! Then, for good measure, toss in the power of the food fad and self-diagnosis, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot more people interested in cutting out gluten for good.
For those who can’t eat gluten, there’s only one treatment for the discomfort and potentially very harmful side effects: Don’t eat gluten. To test whether gluten is upsetting you, try cutting it out of your diet for two to four weeks and notice whether you feel more energized, see a reduction in asthma or eczema flare ups, or have fewer digestive issues.
If you decide to go gluten-free, it’s important to enter the decision with the knowledge that it’s a lifestyle choice. Gluten can be really hard to avoid. That’s where the FDA’s regulation comes in. From now on, a label that says “gluten-free,” “free of gluten,” “no gluten” and “without gluten” can only be put on foods that have less than 20 parts per million of gluten, so that people with celiac or more mild intolerance can feel safe about the products they choose. This includes foods that would normally contain gluten (baked goods or beer, for instance) and those that wouldn’t (rice crackers and bottled water).
These grains are good gluten-free alternatives to wheat, rye and barley: amaranth, buckwheat, corn and cornmeal, rice and rice flour, quinoa, millet, tapioca and soy. But be careful what you wish for, as the simple sugars like tapioca that often stand in for gluten-containing foods can cause other real and very serious health problems. “Gluten-free” doesn’t mean “healthy.” If you don’t have a biological sensitivity, cutting out gluten might just rob you of nutrients, such as B vitamins and fiber, that are often found in gluten products. And it’s not a free pass to weight loss either. Remember: Gluten-free cookies are still cookies and a gluten-free muffin still packs a simple-sugar wallop.
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