Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and other grains including barley, spelt, triticale, semolina and rye. Gluten is a glue-like substance that enhances the texture and chewiness of wheat and other grain products. However, gluten is a hidden ingredient in many more unexpected food products such as beer, soy sauce, lunch meat, and most chips and candy. Gluten is used to thicken sauces, soups and salad dressings and is used as a stabilizer in foods such as ice cream and ketchup.
Gluten sensitivity includes a spectrum of disorders, such as wheat intolerance and most notably celiac disease. Celiac disease is considered an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks and damages the small intestine, preventing the absorption of important nutrients. Celiac disease presents symptoms such as pain and discomfort in the digestive tract, chronic constipation or diarrhea, anemia, fatigue and failure to thrive. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance, while not an autoimmune disease, causes inflammation of the digestive tract and can produce symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain and other intestinal distress. For people with celiac disease a lifelong gluten-free diet is essential and is considered a medically acceptable treatment for symptoms of the disease.
It is estimated that about 1% of Americans actually have celiac disease, yet more and more people are opting for a gluten-free diet. Many processed food manufacturers are increasing their production of gluten-free products in response to demand. For people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance, the explosion of gluten-free foods is a blessing. Unpleasant symptoms, malnourishment, bone density loss, lactose intolerance, infertility and potentially fatal complications are just a few of the many reasons that people with Celiac disease should avoid gluten.
There appears to be a common perception that a gluten-free diet is healthier or of better quality. According to Dr. Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, “A gluten-free diet is not necessarily a healthy diet.” He states that “a gluten-free diet can lack essential vitamins, minerals and fiber, and can severely limit your food choices.” According to the American Diabetes Association, gluten-free diets tend to be lacking in calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and B vitamins.
There also seems to be a misconception that a gluten-free diet aids weight loss. However, it is not an ideal or easy way to lose weight as many products labeled gluten-free contain higher levels of saturated fat and calories. In fact, weight gain, not loss, is the goal for celiac sufferers as gluten-free foods enable the absorption of nutrients previously lacking. Replacing heavily processed gluten-containing foods with more nutritious whole foods is a healthier choice. The best diet is one that is balanced and includes lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. Some of the most nutrient dense whole grains, such as amaranth, brown rice and quinoa, are naturally gluten-free and contain fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.
As wheat is omnipresent in the American diet, eliminating gluten means adopting an entirely new diet. “And any time you eliminate whole categories of food you’ve been used to eating, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies,” says Green. “Eating a healthy gluten-free diet means paying constant attention to what you eat. This isn’t something that anyone should do casually.” Many gluten-free products are not fortified with nutrients such as folate, iron and fiber as traditional breads and cereals are. In many bread products additives such as xanthum gum, corn starch or semisynthetic emulsifiers are added as gluten substitutes.
The term gluten-free is used to indicate a supposed harmless level of gluten as opposed to complete absence. Total elimination of gluten from the diet may not be possible, as the Food and Drug Administration has yet to set standards for gluten-free labeling. Even when you diligently read ingredient labels, product additives may be hard to recognize. Ingredients such as modified food starch, malto-dextrose, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, monosodium glutamate, emulsifiers and lecithins may all contain gluten.
Although it is estimated that 90% of the U.S. population is not gluten sensitive, it is calculated that Americans will spend approximately $7 billion this year on foods labeled gluten-free. Some studies have suggested that for certain people an imbalance of intestinal flora may actually be causing their gastric distress. Sugar, alcohol, antibiotics, and environmental toxins can all contribute to dysbiosis or imbalanced intestinal flora. In these cases, adding probiotics to the diet may help to alleviate symptoms.
Those who want to test their digestive systems for gluten intolerance should consult their healthcare provider or dietician before abstaining from all products containing gluten for 2 – 4 weeks. Within that timeframe, your system will tell you if you need to avoid gluten altogether or if you can eat gluten-containing foods without worry.
Products that may help relieve symptoms relating to gluten intolerance or dysbiosis:
Gluten-Flam (K-52) by Apex Energetics is designed not only to provide powerful gluten digestive enzymes, but also to support intestinal health during unexpected exposure to hidden sources of gluten.
Carbo-G by Transformation Enzymes aids the digestion of complex carbohydrates and gluten and is designed to help reduce the symptoms of occasional bloating, diarrhea, gas, and abdominal cramps associated with diets high in complex carbohydrates.
G.I. Digest by Douglas Laboratories is a vegetarian enzyme formula designed for digestive support of foods containing protein, fats, dairy and gluten.
Ultra Flora Balance by Metagenics helps maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora and is designed to provide intestinal support on multiple levels.