It seems these days, everyone is going gluten free. But do they really need to? We asked Nutritionist Hazel Grassie to give us her opinion piece on gluten.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a structural protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The two main components of gluten are gliadins and glutenins. Products containing the aforementioned grains, and ingredients derived from them such as wheat-containing flours, will subsequently contain gluten. Due to the wide range of gluten containing ingredients, food products labelled wheat-free may not always equate to being gluten-free (GF).
Adverse reactions to gluten
Roughly one percent of the UK population react adversely to the gliadin component of gluten known as coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease meaning that the body mistakenly identifies gliadin as a harmful antigen, producing antibodies to attack it. The body simultaneously attacks its own non-harmful intestinal enzyme, which damages the intestinal wall. People with coeliac disease often suffer nutrient deficiencies, anaemia, fatigue, and stomach discomfort. Gluten intolerance could be defined as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) as it lacks the autoimmune element. People may suffer adverse effects like bloating, diarrhoea or stomach pain. The only way of diagnosing NCGS is through food challenge testing in controlled conditions whereby symptoms must improve on a GF diet and reoccur upon gluten reintroduction.
The gluten debate
In recent years there has been much debate concerning the health effects of gluten. Some studies suggest that gluten exacerbates symptoms for IBS patients. Other studies claim a connection between gluten consumption and various brain disorders and autoimmune diseases. Due to better diagnosis techniques the prevalence of gluten sensitivity, both coeliac and NCGS, has risen in recent years. Increased awareness of gluten sensitivity alongside negative media coverage may have stricken paranoia in the population. A growing number of people speculate gluten sensitivity to be the source of their stomach discomfort. Many people self-diagnose using Internet research or unreliable tests bought on the high street. Bread and pasta has been a staple in the common diet for centuries with no reported ill effects; so why the sudden rise in alleged gluten intolerance? Is gluten really the culprit or could it be other changes in the modern diet?
The gluten free market
The food industry has been fast on its feet to cater for the needs of those with diagnosed gluten sensitivity, enabling patients to more easily manage their conditions. Let’s remember however, that people looking to gluten as the cause of their ailments are a huge market for the industry. These people are willing to spend more money in attempt to cure their ‘intolerance’. The UK gluten-free market rose by fifteen percent from 2013 to 2014. Only one percent of people has coeliac disease yet five percent purchase GF products. The undiagnosed proportion of people claim to chose GF for the alleged digestive health benefit, enhanced nutrition and as a weight loss aid.
Thinking outside the box..
My concern is that many people may be unnecessarily restricting their diet. Before self-diagnosing, it is worth considering the other possible causes of stomach discomfort. Traditional baking practices changed drastically on introduction of the Chorleywood process in 1961. This involves the addition of preservatives, enzymes and more yeast. This method bypasses the slower fermentation process and results in a bouncier textured bake. However, bread requires sufficient time to ferment and without it can produce coeliac-like symptoms. The excess yeast used in modern processes may be accountable for increased stomach upset, not the gluten itself. Furthermore, the type of wheat now used industrially known as dwarf wheat may play a part as it is less nutritious and contains a wider variety of gluten proteins. Scientists have tested the theory that modern processing techniques influence stomach upset. Tested subjects report that alleged ‘gluten sensitivity’ does not persist and symptoms vanish when they switch to traditionally proven loaves.
Tackling the allegations
Allegations that gluten is the cause of weight gain have been disproven. Many gluten-containing foods like biscuits, pizza and cake are calorific. When these are restricted from the diet, it is of course likely that one will lose weight. Weight loss on introduction of a GF diet is not necessarily the result of gluten restriction but calorie reduction. There is also evidence that gluten intolerance has a psychological element. During blind-tasting tests 75% of people who think they are intolerant do not experience symptoms in response to gluten containing foods. The alleged health benefits of a GF diet have been investigated with no evidence to suggest it has any significant advantages. In fact, a GF free diet may be detrimental for those do not require it because GF diets tend to lack fibre and can lead to nutrient and mineral deficiencies. People without diagnosed gluten intolerance should weigh the benefits of gluten restriction against the addition of gluten substitutes to their diets. These tend to be more adulterated with chemicals, sugar and fat to compensate for the absence of gluten’s beneficial properties.
Shopping and eating wisely
Those with coeliac disease or NCGS should focus on fresh vegetables, meat, fish and non-processed goods. Although the GF products available are indispensable for intolerant people, GF consumers must be aware of misleading advertising. Some products that never contained gluten originally may be labelled GF, appearing more attractive to a health conscious shopper. Substitutes are available for perceived ‘bad foods’ like ice cream which people then misinterpret as virtuous and purchase despite not normally eating these.
People tend to look for causes of their ailments thus; gluten has been speculated but not proven by far. Even those with diagnosed intolerance experience common ailments, proving that gluten cannot be blamed for everything! Gluten has become demonized despite the lack of reliable scientific evidence in favour of adverse effects. People should not be fooled by what the food industry may see as a commercial endeavour. Why spare the expense without a clinical diagnosis or hard evidence. The moral of the story here is not to restrict your diet unnecessarily and to be conscious of modern-day practices and products that may in fact be to blame.