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Gluten: The Protein We Love To Hate

You see the claim “gluten free” on food products every day: from bread to water to spaghetti sauce and everything in between. With all the buzz, you might think that gluten is dangerous and that “gluten-free” products are always better for you. But what is gluten, anyway, and how bad is it?

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat, and related grains like rye, barley, and triticale. It gives structure to pasta, breads, and baked goods – it makes pizza crust rise and creates a chewy baguette. It is also the protein base for the vegan meat substitute, seitan.

So why all the fuss? What is wrong with gluten? It causes digestive and other problems for certain groups of people. Some have what is called “Celiac Disease,” where gluten actually damages their digestive system. Others are allergic to wheat – which is why wheat is recognized as one of the “big 9” allergens required to be listed on food ingredient panels. And a third group has what is called “gluten intolerance,” a poorly understood condition where gluten causes digestive and other health problems.

Celiac Disease

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, Celiac disease affects an estimated 1% of people worldwide. It is a hereditary autoimmune disease where gluten actually damages the small intestine. This leads to poor absorption of nutrients, and the development of secondary conditions such as anemia, thyroid disease, cancer, and coronary artery disease. Some symptoms are abdominal pain, bloating and gas, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches or migraines, joint pain, and weight loss. The only cure is lifelong avoidance of any gluten-containing products. If you think you might have celiac disease, please consult a doctor who is a specialist in this area, as the testing required is very specific.

Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy, on the other hand, is an immune response and causes symptoms similar to those of nut allergies. These are: swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat, hives, an itchy rash, or swelling of the skin, congestion, headache, difficulty breathing, nausea, diarrhea, and anaphylaxis. According to the Mayo Clinic, wheat allergy is most common in babies and toddlers. Most outgrow wheat allergy by age 16, but surprisingly, adults can develop it. The Cleveland Clinic reports that wheat allergy affects between 0.2% and 1.3% of the world’s population. With a wheat allergy, the body is reacting to one or more proteins found in wheat, not only gluten as with Celiac disease. Like other allergies, the diagnosis of wheat allergy is made using a blood or skin test. Treatment is avoidance of wheat and wheat-containing products.

Gluten Intolerance

Compared to Celiac disease and wheat allergy, gluten intolerance (or NCGS standing for “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity”), is not as well understood. It is when people feel bad (such as abdominal pain, gas, fatigue) when they eat gluten and better when they avoid it. According to this study, the symptoms of NCGS are similar to those of IBS and Crohn’s disease. The mechanism of gluten intolerance is not clear, with some studies suggesting irritation may be caused by other components in wheat instead of gluten. In any case, since NCGS is not an immune response, diagnosis is normally done using an elimination diet.

Gluten-free Diet

This video from Dr. Greger at Nutritionfacts.org, highlights some of the difficulties in trying to identify NCGS. He also highlights some of the downsides of a “gluten-free” diet. As noted in this article from Harvard School of Public Health, there are many nutritional advantages of consuming wheat (and gluten). Consuming whole wheat with gluten has been shown to be health-promoting, such as increasing immunity, and reducing the risk of heart disease. Importantly, the Harvard paper stresses: “For those who are not gluten-intolerant, there is no data to show a specific benefit in following a gluten-free diet… In fact, research following patients with celiac disease who change to a gluten-free diet shows an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.”

So, if you can comfortably eat wheat and gluten-containing products, there is no reason to avoid them. But of course, a “gluten-free” diet is beneficial if you have one of the conditions described above. Either way, Yumbini is here for you! With simple ingredients of beans, rice, sunflower oil, vegetables, and/or fruits, and other seasonings, it is naturally gluten-free – and naturally delicious. Quick and easy to be enjoyed by folks who follow a gluten-free diet and those who don’t!

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