Gluten-Free: A Crash Course

“Gluten-free” has now become as common a food-industry catchphrase as “fat-free” and “low-carb,” with its popularity showing no signs of stopping.

In a bid to catch up with this current dietary trend, food producers and manufacturers have been placing this label onto all sorts of edibles, including amusingly obvious gluten-free fare such as yogurt or bags of pre-washed romaine lettuce.  Conversations that take place between food-conscious people (or “foodies,” an admittedly overused term) now invariably include this phrase, often as a means of describing the quality of health or nutrition in a food item.

What does it mean when something is gluten-free?  Is it nothing more than a diet trend or a food fad?  And does anyone know what gluten actually is?  Do you?

Most of us are aware of this substance to some capacity, and this awareness is mostly due to the aforementioned food labels, as well as dubious television experts or word-of-mouth fads.  We know that gluten is something found in bread products.  We know it has recently been touted as something to be avoided.  We have heard that consuming it causes negative side effects in some people.  It’s…well, we just know that it’s gluten, and it’s better for all of us if we eliminate it from our diets, right?  At least, that’s what we’re being told and sold on an ongoing basis.

But when put on the spot, it might be difficult to locate someone (apart from a nutritionist) who could actually provide a clear definition of what, precisely, gluten is all about.

In order to properly educate ourselves and make our own decisions about our nutritional needs, let’s take a closer look at what gluten is, where it can be found, and whether eliminating it is truly a health-positive step in the right direction.

(Bear in mind that, as with any major changes to your lifestyle and eating habits, it is best to consult a physician or nutritionist before embarking on an entirely gluten-free diet, or any kind of diet wherein you are eliminating a ubiquitous, common source of nutrients.  Despite all the negative buzz currently surrounding gluten, many of the grains and foods that happen to have this protein substance also contain a crucial host of other vitamins and minerals, and therefore it is necessary to construct an alternative diet in which these nutrients are successfully supplemented.)

Gluten 101

Gluten is a substance–specifically, a composite of two proteins–that is present in different grains.  Alongside wheat flour, gluten can be found in spelt, rye, barley, and kamut.  When mixed with water, gluten turns into sticky matter that gives dough its pliability and elasticity; it is the binder, or “glue” that allows it to rise when baked.

Gluten can also be found in unexpected places, such as soy sauce, some lunch meats, hot dogs wieners, bouillon cubes, and even salad dressings.  Oats–such as the kind made famous by the smiling, large-hatted man on the most famous oat company in the world–are gluten-free in their pure form; however, many commercially-processed oats have come into close contact with wheat, rye, barley, or even nuts (a devastating allergen to many).

Celiac Disease

This is a term that has been thrown around lately in tandem with the seemingly-unstoppable gluten-free movement, describing an affliction that is actually rarer than most may think. Celiac, contrary to popular thought, is not merely an uncomfortable sensitivity to gluten; it is one of the most intense and debilitating conditions one can have in regards to gluten consumption, and affects approximately 1% of the total population.  It also happens to be more common in people with Type 1 diabetes.

The distinction cannot be overlooked: There is typical digestive discomfort, and then there is crippling Celiac disease.  With Celiac sufferers, the symptoms can range from gastrointestinal agony, joint pain, and fatigue, to bloating, acne, and even depression.  The small population of people who suffer from Celiac have been known to endure years of pain without a proper diagnosis, and the continued consumption of gluten causes damage to their small intestine.

Celiac disease is also different from gluten intolerance, in which people who consume food containing gluten experience abdominal discomfort–however, their small intestine does not become damaged, and they negatively test for Celiac.  If you find that, after consuming gluten you experience some bloating and diarrhea, it is quite possible that you have an intolerance to the substance.

Should I give up gluten?

Given that it is the most popular, current trend being touted by major food labels, many people report feeling a very noticeable improvement in their mental and physical well-being once they eliminate gluten from their diets.  Countless celebrities endorse a gluten-free existence.  Books such as Wheat Belly have practically demonized bread products, which have been a staple in countless cuisines for centuries.

Sarah Elton, in the December 6, 2012 issue of Maclean’s magazine, states this phenomenon rather succinctly: “Five years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who knew what gluten was. Now everything is made gluten-free—muffins, bread, pizza, pretzels, breakfast cereal, crackers, cinnamon buns—and it’s all available at the supermarket. Gluten-free sales are a rapidly growing segment of the food market in North America and even companies who made their fortunes selling gluten are offering new products catering to the gluten-free.”

Furthermore, Elton writes that many of these gluten-free products actually contain substances, additives, and artificial flavourings that attempt to mimic the consistency and texture of gluten. “Indeed,” she notes, “to read the ingredient list of gluten free packaged goods can sound more like a chemistry textbook than lunch: cellulose gum, glucono delta lactone, sodium carboxy methylcellulose.” This is not unlike the fat-free craze of two decades ago, when food manufacturers loaded up their wares with vast amounts of sugar, salt, and additives in order to provide flavour.

Anderssen’s Flaxrolls and gluten-free eating

You most certainly don’t have to give up your beloved bagels and pizzas, and nobody is saying you should. However, if you want to experiment with a diet free of gluten, the important thing to do is make sure you are eating whole foods; a world of vegetables, legumes, and alternative grains awaits you, all of which will only serve to increase your overall health and well-being.  Gluten-free food can still be nutritious and delicious, and there is no harm in at least making a noble attempt to reduce the amount of gluten in your diet, should you feel it is worth a shot.

In our commitment to nutrition and whole foods, Anderssen’s Flaxrolls has an entirely wholesome, gluten-free menu.  No flaxroll wrap (regular or golden), no salad or side dish, no soup or chili has a trace of gluten, nor do any of our foods contain artificial ingredients or flavour enhancers.  See how you feel when you pair our innovative, tasty food with one of our fresh, cold-pressed juices–you may be doing your body a great favour.

 Author: N.Bondoreff

Sources: mindbodygreen.com, diabetes.org, authoritynutrition.com, glutenfreeliving.com, http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/the-fine-print-of-gluten-free-packaged-foods/

 

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