The Scrutiny on “Gluten-Free”

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You’ve probably found yourself walking through grocery aisles finding more and more “gluten-free” food products. You may have also noticed that these products don’t come cheap. Are these foods necessary for individuals free of medical conditions, or do these foods provide a way to increase profits obtained from sales.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

People have been converting to gluten-free diets to lose weight, enhance energy, treat autism or improve general health. The problem is that there is little or no scientific evidence that these benefits exist.

In individuals with celiac disease, gluten causes an immune response that attacks the small intestine. This results in damage to the villi, the small finger-like projections that line the small intestine and promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be effectively absorbed. This can lead to problems including osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage, seizures, heart disease and intestinal cancer. An associated condition called gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can cause symptoms similar to celiac disease but without the intestinal damage. Celiac disease can be identified with a blood test for the presence of antibodies against a protein called tissue transglutaminase. A biopsy of the intestine is used to confirm the diagnosis.

It must be noted that following a gluten-free diet is very challenging.

Not only does gluten exist in breads, cereals, pasta, pizza and beer, but also in many other products, including soups, sauces, salad dressings, vitamin and mineral supplements, certain medications, and even some toothpastes. The words you would want to look out for on labels would be barley, yeast, durum, spelt, wheat, malt, matzo, semolina and triticale; to name a few.

By excluding these kinds of foods, one needs to be aware of the possibility of having certain nutritional deficiencies. This is because most foods which contain gluten are also fortified. This can be a problem for anyone but is most concerning during pregnancy, as these women require vitamin B9 (folic acid) in order to prevent birth defects. It may therefore be important to take a gluten-free multivitamin-multimineral supplement if trying to avoid gluten.

It is also important to ensure an adequate intake of fibre, if avoiding gluten-free foods. Fibre plays an important role in digestion, bowel movements, and improving cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It is still possible to get the fibre you need from fruits, vegetables, beans and other grains, such as brown rice and quinoa.

The bottom-line is, if you suspect that you may have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, first consult with a doctor. Thereafter, see a dietitian to assist you in excluding certain foods and including others to avoid any deficiencies.

Remember, it is important to make an informed choice when changing a diet that you plan on following for the rest of your life.