What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite found in foodstuffs processed from wheat and similar cereals, including barley and rye. It is applied on a world-wide scale, both in foodstuffs produced directly from sources containing gluten and as an additive to foodstuffs otherwise low in protein.
One of the key reasons to have gluten in foodstuffs is to provide elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to preserve its shape, and frequently giving the ultimate product a chewy texture. More refinement of gluten results in chewier products (such as pizza and bagels), while less refinement results in softer baked goods, such as pastry products. Usually, bread flours are high in gluten, while pastry flours tend to have a lower gluten content.
In addition to being added to ordinary flour dough, for the reasons described above, gluten also has the following uses:
• Gluten (particularly wheat gluten) is routinely used in imitation meats. When cooked in broth, gluten absorbs a bit of the surrounding liquid, and therefore taste, and becomes firm to the bite. As such, it is regularly used in vegetarian and vegan items of food as a meat substitute.
• Numerous processed foods contain “hidden” gluten. For instance, frozen potato products are sometimes coated with a dusting of wheat flour. Certain brands of baking powder also contain wheat flour. Additionally, wheat-based thickeners are routinely found in refined foods such as gravies, soups, sauces, and pie fillings. Even soy sauce contains wheat!
The Codex Alimentarius collection of international standards for food labelling regulates the labeling of products as “gluten free”. It is important to note that the applicable standard is stated not to apply to foods which contain gluten in their normal form.
What this means in practice, is that there will often be hidden gluten in foods. This is likely to present a serious problem (and health hazard) for people who suffer with gluten sensitivities – see further below.
In the United States, gluten is regularly not listed on labels, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classified gluten as “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) – although this is currently under review. In the UK, presently only cereals need to be labelled, while labelling of other products is voluntary.
To ensure that you are avoiding hidden gluten, look for the following ingredients on product labels: modified food starch, unidentified starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), texturized vegetable protein (TVP), binders, fillers, excipients, extenders and malt.
The word gluten originated from the Latin word for “glue”, which already gives a clue of the potential problems with its consumption.
In recent times, understanding and recognition of gluten sensitivities has grown. This is mainly due to the fact that the number of known cases has grown rather starkly.
For example, it is considered by many that coeliac (also spelled “celiac”) disease is one of the most prevalent chronic health disorders in Western countries, yet one of the most under-diagnosed. Up until about 10 years ago, medical schools taught that coeliac disease was relatively rare and only affected about 1 in 2,500 people. It was also thought to be a disease that mainly affected children and young people. More recent clinical studies and progress in diagnosis indicate that at least 3 million Americans, or about 1 in 133 people, have coeliac disease, but only 1 in 4,700 is believed to ever be diagnosed.
It is essential to appreciate that gluten intolerance is not a food allergy. In reality, it is a physical condition in the gut. Basically, undigested gluten proteins (prevalent in wheat and other grains) rest in the intestines and are treated by the body like a foreign body, irritating the gut and flattening the microvilli along the small intestine wall. Without the microvilli, there is a much reduced surface area with which to absorb nutrients from foods. This can lead sufferers to experience symptoms of malabsorption, including chronic fatigue, neurological disorders, nutrient deficiencies, anaemia, nausea, skin rashes, depression and more. Some people also react to a similar protein found in oats.
If gluten is omitted from the diet, the gut often heals and the symptoms disappear. Conditional upon the level and degree of the intolerance (which can range anywhere from a gluten sensitivity to full-blown coeliac disease), it may even be feasible to eventually re-introduce properly prepared grains (sourdough that has fermented for up to a month, sprouted grains, etc) into the diet – but this is not a certainty! In some cases, the inability to digest gluten is genetic.
Coeliac / celiac disease
Current statistics in the UK indicate that around 1 in every 100 people suffers with coeliac disease (also known as sprue).
Broadly speaking, it involves an abnormal immune reaction to partially digested gliadin (a glycoprotein present in wheat and several other cereals, of which gluten is a composite). It is also worth noting that wheat allergy and coeliac disease are distinct disorders.
Symptoms range from mild to severe bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, fatigue, aches, flu-like symptoms, and/or mood swings. Due to the fact that the symptoms are rather general, coeliac disease is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia, lupus, MS, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel, or Crohn’s disease, just to name a few.
It can often be a challenge for people suffering with gluten sensitivities to find, not only suitable foods, but suitable dietary supplements. Specialist Supplements Ltd has gone out of its way to create organic products, health foods, food form supplements, meal replacements and protein powders that are not only gluten free wherever possible, but also wheat, sugar, yeast and dairy free. Check out our ranges now!