Monday, 24 September 2012

What Gluten is and Why You Should Care

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, then you’ve probably heard the term “gluten-free” thrown around quite a few times.
Well you’re in luck, because in this post I am going to explain what gluten is, and find out whether this actually matters for the general population (you and me) or whether it is just another form of nonsense and hype.

What is Gluten?

Alright, let’s start by explaining what exactly Gluten is.
Well, gluten is a protein, composed of two different amino acid sequences called Gliadin and Glutenin.
Gluten is found naturally in certain types of grains, and by far the largest source of gluten in the modern diet is from wheat. Other grains related to wheat also contain it, including rye, barley, spelt, kamut, emmer, einkorn and triticale.
There is one special feature that makes it very popular for baking and as a food additive.
This is the fact that it can form a sticky “cross-linking network”.
Actually, the name gluten is derived from this “glue”-like feature, and you will know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever held wet dough in your hands.
When gluten forms these cross-links, it can bind water and air, allowing bread products to rise during baking.
This protein is often used to give foods a certain stability and texture, and may be found in products like Ketchup and Ice Cream (among others).
Therefore, if you want to avoid gluten then you better start reading ingredient labels.
Other grains, such as oats, do not contain gluten in their natural forms, although they are often contaminated with small amounts of it.

Why should you care?

I’m going to guess that you’ve heard of celiac disease at some point. Let me clarify what that is.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when gluten in the diet causes a massive reaction by the immune system, which can lead to a degenerated intestinal lining, impaired nutrient absorption, diarrhea, weight loss, gas, fatigue and many other symptoms.
Basically, the body’s immune system attacks the intestine. Pretty bad stuff. Celiac disease is believed to affect about 1% of the population. Not that common.
However, there is a broader term known as “Gluten Sensitivity“, which encompasses the various symptoms that susceptible individuals experience when consuming gluten. Gluten sensitivity may affect 6-12% of the population. Pretty common.
But what if you don’t have either celiac disease (phew) or gluten sensitivity?
Should you still give a crap about gluten?
Well, unfortunately, I’m going to have to answer that question with a “yes”, because a few scientific studies do in fact show that otherwise healthy people may have adverse reactions to gluten.
In one study, 15 people (that didn’t have celiac disease) were placed on a diet supplemented with 40g of gluten for 6 weeks, and examined before and after.
The gluten supplemented diet caused degeneration of the lining of the small bowel, which is responsible for nutrient absorption in the digestive tract. There was also an increased concentration of lymphocytes (immune system cells).
This study suggests that gluten may cause harmful structural changes in the digestive tract of people that do not have celiac disease.
The second study is a lot more interesting. It is a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard) with 34 non-celiac individuals. Half the group ate a gluten free diet, the other half didn’t.
It turned out that the gluten group experienced worse symptoms of pain, bloating, stool consistency and tiredness. These individuals didn’t show markers for celiac disease, indicating that gluten may cause symptoms in people that are otherwise in good health.
A third study I found indicates that out of 6 healthy individuals tested, 5 of them had an immune reaction in the intestine to gluten.

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