Making Sense of "Gluten-Free"

What the FDA’s rules on gluten-free labeling mean for you.

Making Sense of Gluten-Free

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.

QUIZ: Are You Eating the Right Grains?

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. 

MORE: Safe Skincare Products for People with Gluten Intolerance

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.

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