By Kaye Foley
Gluten-free foods seem to be everywhere these days, from grocery shelves to restaurant menus. But what is gluten exactly?
It’s a composite of two proteins — gliadin and glutenin. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and various crossbreeds of those. It works like glue, holding food together and producing a spongy texture. It’s found in bread, pasta, pizza, beer, pastries and similar treats. But gluten also pops up in less obvious places, like candies, deli meats, malt, soy sauce, food coloring, cosmetics and in some vitamins and prescription drugs.
Almost a third of Americans are cutting gluten from their diets for a variety of reasons. Not everyone can easily digest it, especially people with celiac disease, wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to damage the small intestine when gluten is eaten. This can lead to serious health problems, such as anemia, osteoporosis, fertility problems and even intestinal cancers. In the United States, one in a hundred people have it. Symptoms vary widely, but include rashes, joint pain, fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.
A wheat allergy, although rare, affects a person in a similar fashion to many allergies, causing sneezing, itching and hives.
And finally, some people have what’s called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” The symptoms are like celiac disease, but in these cases the intestine isn’t damaged. There are no tests to identify the intolerance, so diagnoses are often based on personal experience, after eliminating gluten from the diet.
In recent years, gluten has become a controversial issue. Some researchers have linked gluten to autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Others in the scientific community say that gluten is bad for our overall health and that it should be avoided, even if there’s been no confirmation of gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Still others in the scientific community claim there’s little evidence supporting these assertions, and that the gluten-free diet is a fad.
Meanwhile, the gluten-free food market is growing, which means more options for those with celiac disease and other sensitivities. Sales are expected to hit $15 billion in 2016.
So, whether you can stomach gluten or not, the next time you hear someone ask for a gluten-free menu, at least you’ll be able to say, “Now I get it.”