What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a kind of special protein molecule that is really common in our food supply — grains like rye, wheat, and barley are full of gluten. Because of this, gluten is found in almost every variety of bread, cereal, or grain — in fact, most types of bread contain gluten. The exceptions to the gluten rule are wild rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, quinoa, teff, soybeans, oats, and sunflower seeds. Breads or products made from these grains contain no gluten.
When Is Gluten “Bad?”
So what’s the big deal about gluten, anyway? People who avoid gluten fall in two camps — they are either required to avoid gluten due to an allergy (Celiac disease) or because they believe gluten causes health problems. People who avoid gluten say that gluten protein causes problems in the digestive system such as intestinal ulcers and lesions, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and randomized abdominal pain. Still other problems that are blamed on gluten — weight loss, chronic fatigue, anemia, and osteoporosis.
Sounds pretty serious — and for people with immune problems or allergies to gluten, it can be very serious. So what is a gluten-sensitive person to do?
How Do You Avoid Gluten?
The easiest way to avoid gluten is to not eat foods that contain it, or to eat very little of them.
It is possible to remove gluten from wheat flour — this process produces wheat starch rather than flour, and it is mostly gluten-free. Doctors say “mostly” because it simply isn’t possible to get rid of all of the gluten in wheat flour.
Unfortunately for people trying to avoid gluten, the FDA requires only a “majority” of the gluten to be removed in order for a product to be labeled “gluten-free.” This causes problems for people looking to avoid gluten, and is a big reason why many gluten-free types tend to avoid gluten-containing grains altogether.
What Is Gluten Good For?
Gluten gets a bad rap, but it can be a good thing.
Gluten is the ingredient that makes bread chewy and elastic — bread without gluten loses its chewy texture. When you remove gluten, bread dough becomes tacky and sticky, making bread that is dense, hard, and unpleasant.
Gluten does other things — providing nutrients, protein, and allowing bread to rise before it bakes. Gluten does this by trapping certain gases in the bread dough. Gluten also becomes firm when it cooks and (when combined with starch) gives the bread its typical “bread shape”. Bread without gluten is usually as hard on the eyes as it is on the teeth.
A final “plus” in gluten’s corner is its ability to absorb — the bread you eat with your pasta can soak up the tomato sauce because of gluten. This absorbent and tender quality of gluten is why it is often used as a meat substitute in vegetarian or vegan meals.
Having said all that, one feature of gluten’s effect on bread is not so good. Gluten is primarily responsible for bread going stale.
What Is Celiac Disease? What Are Celiacs? Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
Celiacs are people who suffer from Celiac disease. Celiac disease makes digesting gluten nearly impossible, causing gastrointestinal problems and making life very uncomfortable.
People with celiac disease are required to eat only foods that don’t have any gluten — otherwise, their illness will “flare up” and cause problems. When it is properly treated, celiac disease causes almost no problems, and avoiding gluten (for some people) is a health choice rather than a choice made to conquer an illness. People who avoid gluten find it easier to lose weight and maintain a healthy metabolism. You don’t have to be a Celiac to avoid gluten.
What Are the Risks of Celiac Disease?
When it isn’t properly treated, Celiac disease can in fact be fatal. The big problem with avoiding gluten is that many foods are grown or made near foods that do contain gluten, which can cause cross-contamination problems. Celiacs know to eat grains that do not contain gluten (like oats and teff) but these grains are in such close contact with gluten that they can often cause Celiac flare ups.
Of special interest are Celiacs who are also Catholic — Communion wafers are full of wheat, which is the big gluten no-no. Since the Communion wafers are an important part of Catholic ritual, Celiacs often have to find another way to participate in worship.
Gluten is an important nutrient to many people, and it also causes digestive problems for much of the population. Any food product that is both a good thing and a bad thing is going to be controversial. If you think you have a problem with gluten, contact your doctor to decide on a course of treatment.
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