Gluten (derived from the Latin for glue) is a protein composite found in wheat and related grains. It has held the secret to baked goods for centuries. Gluten both holds dough together and provides it with elasticity. Glutens help dough rise and keep its shape and even can give the end result a chewy texture.
Gluten sounds great for bakers. How does gluten affect consumers? Millions of Americans and people all over the world are increasingly showing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and Celiac disease. The culprit? Gluten. That wonderful attribute that makes it glue, does not stop when you eat it. It settles into the small intestine where most of the nutrients from ingested food are absorbed. In people with celiac disease, the body sees gluten fragments as invaders — toxins that shouldn’t be there. When the body attacks these invaders, it also attacks itself, which is why celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disease. Specifically, the body attacks the villi on the lining of the small intestine. As the villi become “blunted” they are no longer as effective in absorbing nutrients. In some cases, this inability to absorb nutrients may be bad enough to stunt growth and weaken bones. The loss of vitamins and minerals may lead to other problems, such as anemia, osteoporosis, or growth delays in children.
People who have celiac disease may have periods when their symptoms seem worse. Or symptoms may sometimes not be noticed at all. In adults, symptoms may occur at any age but most commonly occur during the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Sometimes a person who has celiac disease doesn’t have symptoms after eating foods that contain gluten. But damage to the small intestine is still occurring.
Within 2 weeks after starting a gluten-free diet, most people with celiac disease find that their symptoms improve. Symptoms should completely disappear within 3 months. But it takes up to 6 months or longer on a gluten-free diet for the villi to return to normal.
No gluten intolerance? Studies have found that following a gluten-free diet lowers the risk for lymphoma in adults.
Today, consumers are more aware of the negative effects of consuming gluten laden products, such as breads, cakes and pastas. However, they are not as knowledgeable that gluten free does not necessarily mean healthy.
Aside from gluten, wheat has other unhealthy aspects in your diet. Refined grain products are digested quickly, which leads to spikes in blood sugar. The spikes are followed by rapid drops which tend to stimulate hunger and call for another high-carb meal. This “blood sugar roller coaster” is caused by processed wheat that is lower in fiber. Whole grains contain more fiber and result in slower rises in blood sugar. However, whole grains aren’t always what they’re supposed to be. Often, they have been pulverized into very fine flour, which also gets digested quickly, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar.
The glycemic index is a marker of how quickly foods elevate blood sugar levels. The average whole wheat bread has a glycemic index of 71, the same as white bread. Eating a diet that includes a lot of high GI foods is associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Elevated blood sugars also cause complications when the glucose reacts with proteins in the body. This is called glycation and is one of the components of aging).
Eating gluten free is a great way of avoiding lots of dietary related health problems. And to a certain extent, it is a healthy way of eating. The trick is to consume wisely. For example, A carrot is a gluten free product and a rice cookie is a gluten free product. Both gluten free, but the carrot is a whole food and has on average about 200% of vitamin A. The gluten free cookie on the other hand might be full of sugar, fat and starch. Both can claim gluten free, but they are not equal.
The most important thing is to keep reading labels. Gluten free is only one check mark. Watch for the others.