Today I received this question on a Facebook Post:
What is gluten and why would you want to NOT eat it?
I think my answer could be useful to others, so here it is:
Gluten is a protein composite (made up of two different proteins) that is present in the endosperm of cereal grains including wheat (such as common wheat, spelt, durum, etc.) and in a slightly differing form in some other grains such as rye and barley. It can be found in the whole grain, the processed grain and in many surprising places like beer, soy sauce, imitation meats, ice cream; the list is endless. Gluten is like the ‘glue’ that makes bread doughs elastic and chewy.
Reasons that some people choose to not eat gluten, in order of severity and in my opinion:
1) You have coeliac disease, an auto immune disease where the presence of gluten literally causes attacks on your small intestine. Coeliac sufferers can become very ill, lose weight, their digestive system can’t absorb nutrition effectively and they need to avoid all gluten even in tiny amounts.
2) You have a genuine diagnosed wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity/intolerance. These are often lumped together but are scientifically different. Symptoms can include many things such as bloating, abdominal discomfort or pain, diarrhoea, constipation, muscular disturbances, headaches, migraines, severe acne, eczema, fatigue, and bone or joint pain, and for the wheat allergy symptoms can come up as all kinds of other allergic responses. Testing is still a little controversial and conducting a structured ‘food elimination plan’ to eliminate other food types as additional potential protagonists can be useful indeed.
3) You have noticed that you get bloated after eating bread, you are grumpy after pizza, or you get headaches after your morning shredded wheat – you may be a little gluten ‘intolerant’. Again a ‘food elimination plan’ can help to find the root cause. This is not necessarily ‘diagnosed’ but some people who have suffered for years with bloating & tiredness after meals, or even IBS (irritable bowl syndrome) can show significant improvement by avoiding gluten products most of the time.
4) Like me, you are not intolerant of gluten but you have an issue with the genetically modified (GMO) farming process in which wheat becomes a Franken-grain with the amount of chemicals and pesticides that are now part of the seed itself. You consider that research is in its infancy and would rather not take the risk so often avoid wheat products, among other things, to avoid the chemicals used in industrial farming. (If this interests you, watch the movie GMO OMG). However, this is not specific to gluten or grains and applies across the board to many non-organic products, especially with processed foods and even if they are not processed.
5) You are a sucker for fad diets and think that ‘gluten-free’ means ‘healthy’. Gluten Free labelling has become the new ‘Low Fat’ that food marketing companies are using to suggest a particular processed food (i.e. anything with an ingredients list) is healthy when often it is full of tons of other processed rubbish, even in the loudly declared absence of gluten.
In summary and in answer to the initial question, there are a variety of reasons to consider avoiding gluten, but eating gluten-free does not mean healthy and this is the mistake that is often made thanks to clever marketing. I hope this rundown helps, allowing for brevity and my comparatively limited scientific knowledge.
For those with coeliac disease gluten can be truly life-threatening and for some non-coeliac people (my hubby included) gluten can cause genuine issues and it is sometimes best avoided.
For the rest of us, whether you choose to consume gluten or not, choose real food, choose whole food and choose organic food whenever possible. Consider where the food came from and what it is or what it was – do you even know? And most important of all, if you are buying processed food, READ THE INGREDIENTS! Do you know what they all are? Ask yourself, are they even food…?
Food for thought! 🙂