Gluten can be a pretty controversial topic these days. It can cause serious side effects in some individuals and as such, it gets a pretty bad reputation in the food world. You’ve probably seen most supermarkets, restaurants and other food joints will now have entirely gluten free selections.
But what exactly is gluten, and is it healthy, or something we should all be avoiding in our diets?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein that is found in the wheat plant and some other grains. The gluten is actually a crucial part of the plant as it helps feed baby seedlings while they germinate. It is naturally occurring, but can be extracted, concentrated, and added to food and other products to add protein, texture, and flavour.
Gluten also works as a binding agent to give processed foods structure and help to hold together. When flour is mixed with liquid, the gluten proteins form a sticky connection that has a glue-like texture. This glue-like characteristic makes the dough elastic and gives bread and other baked goods the ability to rise during baking. It also provides a chewy, satisfying consistency.
Fun fact, it was actually given the name gluten due to the glue-like property of wet dough!
Foods Containing Gluten
When most people hear gluten, they mainly think of wheat or foods containing wheat. However, gluten can be found in a wide range of whole and processed foods, including:
- Grains such as whole wheat, wheat bran, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, couscous, semolina, bulgur, durum, and wheat germ.
- Processed grain-based products like crackers, bread, pasta, seitan, cookies, pastries, certain noodles, some veggie burgers along with other meat substitutes.
- Other foods and beverages including barley malt, malt vinegar, soy sauce, certain salad dressings, sauces or gravies thickened with flour, bouillon and some broths, certain spice blends, some processed meats. Plus, beer and certain kinds of wine and liquor.
Did you know you can even find gluten in certain non-food and household items such as detergent, dental products, vitamins, cosmetics, and medication?
What Does Gluten-Free Mean?
You may have seen the term ‘gluten -free’ or ‘free from gluten’ written on certain food and drink products. If you’re trying to eliminate or reduce gluten from your diet it can still be difficult to navigate whether a product is suitable or if was enriched with gluten-containing ingredients or unintentionally contaminated whilst processing.
Fortunately, there is a law in the UK that covers the use of the term gluten free on labelling. If you see ‘gluten free’ on a label, then these products will be suitable for a gluten free diet. The wording 'gluten free' can only be used exclusively on items which contain 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, or less. So, these labels don’t necessarily mean that gluten is entirely absent from the item.
Is Gluten Healthy?
From all the research conducted thus far, it appears gluten isn’t inherently bad for most people. In fact, for people who can digest it, gluten is perfectly harmless. Most people can, and have eaten gluten most of their lives, without any negative side effects.
Gluten actually has a range of benefits and is present in many healthy whole grain foods. It can make for a high-protein, low-fat meat substitute for anyone on a plant-based or vegan diet.
Along with being generally more expensive than conventional foods, gluten-free foods are often less fortified with folic acid, iron, and other nutrients. Gluten-free foods also tend to have a lower fibre content but higher amounts of sugar and fat.
So, if you think gluten could be affecting your health, make sure to talk to your GP first before cutting it out of your diet completely.
However, there are still a large number of people who can't consume gluten for a variety of health and medical reasons. If you have any of the following, then as you are probably already aware, you should avoid eating gluten.
- Celiac Disease - An autoimmune disease that causes the body to treat gluten as an invader and attacks it along with the gut lining. Celiac is the most severe type of gluten intolerance.
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity – An intolerance that causes gastrointestinal irritation caused by gluten in people who did not test positive for celiac disease or allergies.
- Wheat Allergy - An allergy to wheat, but not to all grains or to gluten itself. It is different from celiac disease but it’s possible to have both conditions.
There are other diseases such as IBS, Type 1 Diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Graves diseases that may also benefit from cutting out or reducing gluten in their diet. Nevertheless, please see your GP or a specialist before making any changes to your eating plan.
The good news for anyone with a gluten intolerance is, there is now many gluten free products and alternatives for you to enjoy!
There are a variety of grain, flour and starch alternatives that are naturally free from gluten. A few examples are amaranth, buckwheat, coconut flour, quinoa, rice flour, soy flour and teff. Why not read our previous article Healthier Flour Alternatives to find out more about some of these gluten free substitutes?
You may be asking what about oats? Whilst oats naturally do not contain gluten, a small selection of people with celiac disease still react to oats. It’s suggested that a protein in oats can trigger a similar response to gluten, as well as the possibility of cross contamination with gluten products during production. Well, here at Wholefood Earth, we’ve got you covered with our gluten free Organic Gluten Free Porridge Oats.
We also have a range of gluten free recipes over on our recipes page. How about giving our Gluten Free Big Boy Pancakes with Muscovado Treacle Syrup a go?