The winds of change are blowing in our supermarkets, and you’ve probably noticed that one huge shift in recent years: the number of gluten-free products available for purchase. Cookies, crackers, breads, pizza doughs, and hundreds of other ingredients are now readily available, begging the question, “where did this gluten-free fad come from?”
Maybe it’s best to start with what gluten IS, and where we find it. Gluten is a combination of proteins found primarily in wheat and other grains, made up of the combination of two proteins called glutenin and gliadin. When these proteins combine (usually in the presence of water), they form a protein matrix called gluten that gives bread doughs their elasticity and gives the baked breads a satisfying chew.
Gluten occurs naturally, but a small proportion of the global population – around 0.3% — suffer from an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, which causes their immune system to have an inflammatory reaction to the gliadin present in it.
Increasingly, doctors are recognizing the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity as well, which causes discomfort and other adverse symptoms but does not involve the same chemical reactions that occur in people who have celiac disease. Others have allergies to wheat that may be associated with gluten or other chemicals that are naturally present in the grain.
This is a long way of saying, wheat presents a problem for a lot of people, and we’re not completely sure why. Popular books advocating certain explanations often claim to have “the answer”, including the uber-popular Wheat Belly.
At the same time as this is happening, trends like Paleo that eliminate most foods containing gluten or carbohydrates are also gaining traction, with many practitioners saying they feel much better on a low- to no-carb diet.
While the science is pending on this one, most doctors agree that you probably won’t do yourself any harm by eliminating gluten from your diet, so if you feel compelled to try it, go nuts! Be aware, though, that the path forward can be a difficult one. Because wheat and wheat derivatives are so common in processed foods, gluten lurks in lots of products you wouldn’t expect, including frozen vegetables, anything with “natural flavorings”, and toothpaste, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.
The real skinny is, eliminating gluten from your diet is probably easier now than it ever has been before, but it also runs the risk of depriving you of needed vitamins and minerals if you’re not conscious about replacing them. Without important nutrients like folic acid (found in wheat), you can put yourself at risk of various deficiencies. Luckily, the Internet is full of resources that can help you in that quest.