You’ve probably heard a lot about Gluten. Labels in grocery stores highlight many products as gluten free… Many of these seem like healthy products. But does being “gluten free” make something healthy? Is gluten bad for you? And… what is gluten?
What is Gluten? Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, rye, and barley. This protein provides bread, grain, and pasta products with elasticity and the ability to hold shape. Without gluten, we wouldn’t have many of the grain products we’ve enjoyed for thousands of years!
Is Gluten Unhealthy? The simple answer is “no.” However, there are 3 groups of individuals who are unable to eat gluten products due to specific dietary restrictions:
- Those with Celiac Disease: When those with Celiac Disease consume gluten, their bodies send immune responses that attack their small intestines. Over prolonged periods of time, this immune response destroys the intestine’s ability to obtain nutrients from food. Celiac Disease is a serious condition that can cause digestive issues, fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis, and malnutrition.
- Those with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): Those with NCGS will not experience damage to their small intestine due to gluten consumption. But they will experience a list of unpleasant symptoms including brain fatigue, lost energy, and digestive issues.
- Those with wheat allergies: Those who are allergic to wheat experience allergic reactions to wheat itself– not to gluten in wheat. These individuals must avoid gluten simply because it is naturally present in wheat products.
For the rest of us, gluten is just a protein in wheat, barley, & rye. In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans consume grains daily, making half our grains whole. Whole grains are essential to digestive health and provide valuable nutrients. Whole grains include wheat, barley, and rye, as well as other non-gluten products like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat.
If you don’t have Celiac Disease, an allergy, or sensitivity to gluten; eating wheat, barley, and rye is not unhealthy. Instead, these whole grains can supply important nutrients.
Why are gluten-free products everywhere? Formally, the U.S. lacked any rules regarding what food companies could market as being “gluten free.” In 2013, The FDA created a law which required all food products to meet specific criteria before they could be marketed as “gluten free.” This rule ensured all individuals with Celiac Disease could be certain the food they purchased was safe.
Since this time, the use of “gluten free” on labels has grown in popularity as a way to market products to those with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity. However, these labels do not indicate greater nutritional value. Some products which say “gluten free” would never normally contain gluten. For example, packages of potatoes, rice, candy, or meat which market that they’re”gluten free,” do not normally include gluten. But this label indicates to those with Celiac or gluten sensitivity that no gluten has been present on the equipment used to process these foods– aka that the risk of cross-contact with gluten on equipment is limited to the trace amount allowable by the FDA. Nothing has been done to make these non-grain products healthier.This label is simply there to highlight a safe products for those with Celiac or gluten sensitivity.
So what does this mean for me? If you have Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity, be sure to consume gluten-free whole grains which are easy to find in most stores.
If you don’t have Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity, enjoy wheat, barley, and rye products: Just be sure to make half these choices whole grain. This will help you choose grain products high in nutrients and help you to live healthy live well!
UCLA Division of Digestive Diseases. Celiac vs. gluten sensitivity vs. wheat allergies. University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved from: http://gastro.ucla.edu/site.cfm?id=281
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
U.S. Food and Drug Aministration (2014). ‘Gluten free’ now means what it says. FDA Consumer Health Information. Retrieved from: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/UCM363276.pdf