You must have heard by now about eating gluten-free, whether it’s in a restaurant or on a TV show or from a friend or relative. So what’s the deal with gluten? And being gluten-free? It seems like gluten-free food is everywhere now, whereas you never heard about it just a few short years ago. What is gluten, and why is it so bad for you?
To answer the second question first, gluten probably isn’t bad for you. It may be kind of bad for some people, and it’s positively toxic to a very small group of people with a condition called Celiac Disease. In Celiac Disease, an autoimmune condition triggers a highly destructive reaction in your body when you eat gluten-containing foods and grains.
Here’s the problem. Only a very small—indeed, it’s tiny—fraction of people in most parts of the world has Celiac Disease, or will ever develop it. However, the idea that gluten-free is good for you, and that gluten is bad, has caught on like wildfire. There really isn’t very good evidence that gluten and celiac are the kind of widespread problem you might think.
When you eat gluten-free, you cut out an important food allergen:wheat. I believe that the vast majority of people who think they are benefitting from eating gluten-free (and here I mean people who don’t have a confirmed or likely diagnosis of Celiac Disease) are, in fact, benefitting because they’ve cut out wheat and wheat products. It’s the wheat, and the wheat allergy or sensitivity, that has been making them sick, or lethargic, or depressed, or any number of other problems and illnesses. Wheat and wheat products can cause, or exacerbate almost any health condition, if you’re among those who are allergic or sensitive to it.
Now back to that first question: What’s the deal with gluten? Gluten is a protein present in certain grains (grains are the seeds of certain grasses). Gluten, in turn, contains a protein component called gliadin, and it is certain types of gliadins that trigger Celiac Disease in susceptible individuals.
Why do I think that wheat is a bigger problem than gluten? Well, how many people do you know who regularly eat barley, rye, and triticale? Not too many, I bet. So when people go gluten-free, what they’re really doing is cutting out the number one food allergen: wheat, in its various forms—wheat flour, durum flour, semolina flour, bulgur wheat, and the like. [Note that couscous is really just teeny-tiny, white wheat flour pasta.]
Now the wheat- and gluten-savvy among you may be thinking "Aha! But what about spelt and kamut? They’re not wheat, but they have gluten." This is true, and kamut and spelt were popularized in the past 25 years as wheat alternatives that may be less allergenic. But spelt and kamut are kissing cousins of wheat; they are more similar than different. Remember that all grains are the seeds of grasses? Well, wheat, kamut, spelt, and triticale (a hybrid) are especially closely related. Oats and corn have some gluten but most people with celiac, or gluten sensitivity, don’t react to them in the same way as they would to wheat, barley, and rye.
If going gluten-free has helped you or someone you care about, what’s the harm in it? Really, there’s none. But it isn’t correct or accurate to say "I can’t eat gluten" when in fact your actual problem is wheat, and you could eat barley, rye, and oats without any problem. What’s more, food manufacturers, marketers, and retailers have figured out that they can charge more for gluten-free products. They’ve figured out that marketing gluten-free is good business, which doesn’t make it good medicine or science.
If you don’t have Celiac Disease or a strong gluten sensitivity, small amounts of gluten won’t harm you. If you’re highly sensitive or allergic to wheat, a little bit of wheat could make you feel very bad indeed.
This is the first part of a short blog series on gluten and gluten-free. You can check out our next post that will explain a little more about gluten and Celiac Disease. Make sure to take a look at our free DIY food allergy test plan, too.