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Gluten rarely came up in conversation a few years ago, but now it’s a household name and a profitable business. Over $4 Billion worth of gluten-free products were sold last year alone. Is going gluten-free just a craze or is it actually beneficial for your health? It can be both, depending on a number of things. Here’s the low-down

What is gluten?

  • Gluten is a protein compound found in the endosperm of grains such as wheat, rye, and barley.
  • Gluten is found in both the whole and refined versions of grains.
  • Gluten is found in unlikely places since it is often used as a texturizer in foods like candy, often licorice, deli meats and even potato chips.

What are the problems associated with gluten?

Celiac Disease

The most significant and lethal health problem associated with gluten consumption is, celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that affects roughly 1 percent of the population.

What exactly is celiac disease?

If a person has celiac disease, his or her immune system treats gluten as if it were a pathogen that needs to be attacked. This is accompanied by inflammation of the intestine, which over time can cause damage to the intestinal lining and lead to malabsorption of both vitamins and minerals. Effects can be severe and range from abdominal discomfort, nutrient deficiencies, an itchy rash, and, over time, increased risk of intestinal cancer. Unaddressed, the condition and its complications can be lethal.

How does one detect celiac disease?

You will need to consult your doctor for blood tests and/or biopsies to determine if you have celiac disease.

Gluten sensitivity – which means people both people who are allergic to gluten and those who are intolerant of gluten – affects roughly 10% of the population at large. If you are sensitive to gluten, you will not have measurable antibodies to gluten present in your blood or any observable damage to you intestine, unlike if you were to have celiac disease. However, you may feel similar symptoms, including gastrointestinal distress, fatigue and headaches.

How does one detect gluten sensitivity?

The only way to test for gluten sensitivity is to conduct a trial elimination of gluten to determine if symptoms lessen.

Because gluten is becoming more of a household name – both because of increased detection and the prevalence of fat gluten-free diets – federal regulations have designated wheat as an allergen and require that it is labeled on processed food products.

If you have celiac disease you have to be incredibly diligent as a consumer to ensure processed foods do not contain gluten (since labels can be tricky, sometimes stating a product “may” have wheat ingredients). There are also Smartphone apps that can help, such as the Allergy Talk by Fooducate app and Cook IT Allergy Free app.

What to do when eating out

While the USDA has required that packaged foods indicate whether the food contains any trace of the “big eight” allergy foods (eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, &/or wheat) since 2006, it does not apply to restaurant foods. According to Melinda Beck’s piece in the Wall Street Journal: “only Massachusetts requires restaurants to display a food-allergy poster in the kitchen, keep an allergy-trained manager on duty and urge guests to inform servers about allergies.”

If you do not have an allergy or intolerance to gluten, however, there is no need to go gluten-free. There are no reputable studies that show going gluten-free (when you don’t have to) will improve your health.

If you eat a gluten-free diet, what are some of your challenges? What are some of your favorite gluten-free products?

Annabel Adams

Communications Director at HUMAN Healthy Vending
Annabel Adams is a Los Angeles-based writer and the blogger behind Feed Me, I'm Cranky where she tackles food and obesity politics. To fuel her barefoot running and powerlifting, Annabel loves to snack on anything vegan she can get her hands on. Annabel has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Fitness, Health, and Redbook magazines.
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