Lately, it’s hard to go anywhere without hearing something about gluten and many people are touting the benefits of a gluten-free diet. But is there a real benefit to dumping gluten? Or have we all fallen prey to another fad diet?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is responsible for the stretchiness of dough, as well as the shape, structure and chewiness of the final, bready product. Gluten itself can also be added to recipes to aid stabilization and make for a chewier end product. Gluten, in one form or another, can be found in everything from ketchup to ice cream.
Because gluten is a pervasive ingredient, knowing whether or not you need to avoid it is important. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten triggers an immune response in the intestines. An estimated 1 in 100 people are affected by celiac worldwide, and approximately 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. The only known treatment at this time is a gluten-free diet.
Gluten sensitivity is a trickier diagnosis that can be given after celiac disease is ruled out, but symptoms improve while on a gluten-free diet and worsen again when gluten is re-added. It has been estimated that for every one person diagnosed with celiac disease, there are six or seven with gluten sensitivity. Because a clear definition or test for gluten sensitivity does not exist, it is hard to tell whether following a gluten-free diet is necessary.
As for the regular, undiagnosed Joe or Jane: gluten-free does not equate to healthier food. Sure, fruits and vegetables are gluten-free and are also some of the best things for your health. But all gluten-free foods are not created equal. When gluten is taken out of a recipe, something else needs to be added in to make the new end product similar to the original. Gluten-free processed food is still processed food – generally higher in fat, salt and sugar than what you would make at home. These ingredients are important for taste, shelf life and stabilization. But being healthy doesn’t always mean your food lasts a long time – it means you eat healthy food!
Many people, headlines and health professionals will tell you that a gluten-free diet is the bee’s knees. As gluten is often added to processed food products to stabilize the final product, I would guess we’re probably getting more than we expect, and also probably more than we need. But cutting it out completely is likely far too drastic and unsustainable of an answer. Eating healthy does require sacrifice and discipline, but the tried and true recipe for health includes less processed foods, not more of them.
If you have celiac disease or think you may have some degree of gluten sensitivity, talk to your doctor. For those with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential to short-term comfort and long-term health. Those with gluten sensitivity won’t suffer the damaging effects of gluten on intestines, but you may find some relief of your symptoms. As for the rest of us, let’s give gluten a break from the spotlight and focus on balancing out the rest of our diet.