What is gluten?
There’s half an aisle in your local supermarket dedicated to gluten free products, your favourite café sells gluten free muffins and cakes, and it seems like every health and fitness magazine has an article about the effects of gluten. But what exactly is gluten and should you be avoiding it?
What is it?
Basically, gluten is a protein found in certain grains, specifically wheat, barley, rye, spelt, triticale and oats. It acts as a leavening agent—helping dough to rise—and gives your bread that dense chewy texture.
Should I avoid it?
Some people, including author Sarah Wilson believe that gluten is a poison. Wilson believes that even if you currently tolerate gluten, our bodies are not designed to process it and it’s only a matter of time until you experience adverse effects. But gluten is a highly debated topic within the health field, and there is no solid evidence to show that the average person should avoid it. It’s a different story for those with gluten intolerance. For these people, eliminating gluten from their diet is essential to their health and longevity.
So what is gluten intolerance?
Gluten intolerances cover a broad spectrum of conditions with varying severity and symptoms, but can roughly be broken down into three categories:
Coeliac disease is a genetic condition affecting about 1 in 100 Australians (source). It is an autoimmune disorder caused by a reaction to gliadin, a compound of gluten. Considered the most serious form of gluten intolerance, Coeliac disease can cause vitamin deficiencies, lethargy, weight loss, fertility issues, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Diagnosis relies on blood and gene testing, and a small bowel biopsy. Coeliac disease is a lifelong condition, and sufferers must completely eliminate gluten from their diets.
Often confused with Coeliac disease, a wheat allergy is an anti-body reaction to various proteins found in wheat, as opposed to the gluten-specific intolerance found in Coeliac disease. The severity of reactions varies greatly, and can manifest as a contact allergy as well as a food allergy. People with wheat allergies should avoid wheat and may need to use antihistamines or other medications to manage reactions if they occur.
The vaguest type of gluten intolerance is gluten sensitivity. It is difficult to diagnose because there is no defined test or specific symptom profile. Reported symptoms range from bloating, gastrointestinal issues, depression, headaches, and fatigue. But with over 100 symptoms reported as possible gluten reactions, it is difficult to rule out other possible causes.
Research into the effects of gluten is broad and ongoing, and there is currently no conclusion as to whether the general population should avoid this controversial little protein. For now, our individual approach to gluten should rely on common sense: if you suspect gluten is making you sick, try eliminating it. But if you’re healthy and symptom-free, order the cupcake!
What are your thoughts on gluten and gluten-free lifestyles?
Find pro-gluten source and insert medical disclaimer.