WHAT IS GLUTEN FREE? WE EXPLAIN!
Enthusiasm for a gluten-free diet in the UK has been spiralling upwards. When we see celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow buying exclusively gluten-free snacks for her children, or we hear tennis players like Novak Djokovic claiming he is the world’s number one due to his gluten-free lifestyle, we are bound to ask ourselves, why not follow in their footsteps?
These days, gluten-free products are flying off the shelves. And the range and quality of these foods have never been better. According to the magazine The Grocer, the UK gluten-free market is now worth over £175 million. Nielsen, a leading market research company, found that gluten-free sales jumped 15% within a year after analysing trends in Britain’s 10 largest supermarkets last year. The younger you are, the company discovered, the readier you will be to pay an extra penny for what you perceive as healthier food.
But the people who really do need to adhere to a gluten-free diet are coeliac disease sufferers. When someone with coeliac eats food containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, it causes an autoimmune reaction in the body, which damages the gut lining. This means the body can’t properly absorb nutrients from food and it basically starts to attack itself. This, in turn, can lead to bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, wind, constipation, tiredness, headaches, sudden or unexpected weight loss, hair loss or anaemia.
Experts say the only effective treatment for those with coeliac – which by the way is not an allergy or an intolerance – is a gluten-free diet for life. Without it, a person’s condition may worsen over time and lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, cancer of the small bowel and even infertility problems.
The patient group Coeliac UK says one in 100 people have the autoimmune disease, but it also warns that three quarters of sufferers don’t know they have it and remain undiagnosed. However, the number of people diagnosed with coeliac disease in the UK, has increased fourfold in the last two decades. Experts from the University of Nottingham believe the increase is due to better diagnosis, rather than more people developing the condition.
Coeliac disease can be diagnosed by your local GP who can run a blood test checking for presence of certain antibodies. If their presence is confirmed, you will be referred to a gastroenterologist – for a gut biopsy. If the antibodies are there, but the biopsy turns out to be negative, you suffer from gluten sensitivity. This means you are at the coeliac disease’s gates, but you haven’t passed through the threshold yet. At this point, it is not clear how the immune system might be affected but your gut lining does not seem to be damaged. Here, scientists do not agree whether a gluten-free lifestyle is necessary.
Keep in mind, that while being diagnosed, you must not adhere to a gluten-free diet, because it may lead to false results. If it turns out that you do not suffer from coeliac, there is no need to avoid gluten, according to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
This recommendation will surely never stop us from browsing the web in search of tips that will makes us healthier. A myriad of articles claim for example that a gluten-free diet with will rid you of some of the pain associated with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. The jury is still out on whether this is indeed the case, but many arthritis sufferers who went gluten free felt it made joint pain more manageable.
So, at the end of the day, it’s up to us. If a gluten-free diet reduces pain and inflammation in our joints, why not stick to it while we wait for experts to offer conclusive research.
But let’s talk about the boogieman – gluten itself. In food, gluten acts as a sort of glue, which in turn gives dough its stretchiness. If you like a soft muffin or a chewy loaf of bread, you have gluten to thank for it.
In the United States, it is more likely that you will meet gluten’s genetically modified cousin – so-called “super gluten.” It is a Hulk amongst glutens with its 28 chromosomes compared to gluten’s measly 14. Therefore, if gluten causes inflammation, “super gluten” triggers super inflammation, experts say.
The gluten-free craze is quite a timely phenomenon – in fact, it is a product of our time. The meteoric rise of gluten in our diet started with the mass production of food after the World War II. It therefore stands to reason that we are now becoming aware of the downsides of this practice and just recently able to compare the impact of processed foods on our health. Not surprisingly, you can find gluten in most commercially produced cereals, breads, biscuits and cakes, but also in anything from ready meals to soups and salad dressings to canned goods, so it’s important to read labels carefully.
By our online editor Chantal Quimet