gluten – a short write up

TL: DR

  • Gluten is a mixture of proteins.
  • It is non-toxic
  • If you do not have celiac disease or allergies, it is safe for you to eat gluten.

What is gluten?

Gluten refers to the mixture of proteins found in cereal grains’ endosperm. It is what determines the elasticity of the dough. For example over mixing flour activates the gluten producing a denser, harder and more elastic dough, which is desirable for making pizza bases but not suitable for cakes and muffins.

What foods contain gluten?

Any food containing the following:
1. Barley (malt, malt flavoring and malt vinegar are usually made from barley)
2. Rye
3. Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)
4. Wheat
Source: Mayo Clinic

NOTE: Even if the food does not contain gluten, it might still not be gluten free.
Eg. Oats do not contain gluten. However cross-contamination may occur if it is processed on equipment that has treated any of the ingredients listed above.
FYI: Oats and gluten have quite a complicated relationship. This position statement from Coeliac Australia is a rather comprehensive overview of the subject.

Is gluten bad?

If you suffer from celiac disease. Yes. This is because gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines of people with celiac disease, hence it is advisable to avoid gluten containing food items to avoid complications and improve their quality of life.

For the rest of us, a gluten free diet has not shown to have any additional health benefits. In fact it may result in nutrient deficiencies, greater risk of exposure to certain toxins and a heftier grocery bill.

And it has also been associated with an increase in obesity:

Gluten-free packaged foods frequently contain a greater density of fat and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts.9 Increased fat and calorie intake have been identified in individuals after a GFD.10, 11 Obesity, overweight, and new-onset insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome have been identified after initiation of a GFD.12, 13, 14 A GFD also may lead to deficiencies in B vitamins, folate, and iron,15, 16 given a lack of nutrient fortification of many gluten-free products.
Source: The Gluten-Free Diet: Recognizing Fact, Fiction, and Fad

Although there have been data suggesting gluten may be harmful, it has been mainly derived from animal models. Which may not have much transference/applicability to humans. There have been new studies emerging regarding its effects on the humans’ gut microbiome, but it is still hard to determine what is the impact of this and warrants further study.

A recent interesting development is that the scientists who first discovered evidence for non-celiac gluten sensitivity have now shown it doesn’t exist.

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten,” Gibson wrote in the paper. A third, larger study published this month has confirmed the findings.

It seems to be a ‘nocebo’ effect – the self-diagnosed gluten sensitive patients expected to feel worse on the study diets, so they did. They were also likely more attentive to their intestinal distress, since they had to monitor it for the study.

On top of that, these other potential dietary triggers – specifically the FODMAPS – could be causing what people have wrongly interpreted as gluten sensitivity. FODMAPS are frequently found in the same foods as gluten. That still doesn’t explain why people in the study negatively reacted to diets that were free of all dietary triggers.

 

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