Food trends and diets are constantly shifting – so much so that it’s hard to keep up sometimes. Yeast is so 2013. This year the hot topic is gluten.
Going ‘gluten-free’ is all the rage. The awareness of gluten, and the harm it can cause to some, has soared and caused widespread fear. So now going ‘gluten-free’ isn’t just for those with coeliac disease – it’s the diet of choice for Hollywood starlets and health nuts alike. Even in the absence of any undesirable symptoms, gluten is being perceived as something to be avoided.
The extreme reaction of coeliacs to gluten caused a huge improvement in gluten labelling. Food producers also started to bring out more gluten-free foods. Fantastic news of course for those with coeliac disease, but is it entirely necessary for the rest of us? Can we assume that all ‘gluten-free’ foods are necessarily good for us? Just because a cupcake is labelled ‘gluten-free’, does that automatically mean that it’s also unprocessed or unsweetened? Think about it. Studies suggest that only 1 in 100 people have the disease. So why are we punishing ourselves by cutting out foods that we love, such as the odd slice of freshly baked bread? The smell alone is almost impossible to resist. Is it possible that we are victims of the latest dietary fad or buzzword?
The widespread fear of gluten has also had a knock-on effect on grains, and carbohydrates in general. Diets such as ‘The Caveman Diet’ and the ‘Atkins Diet’, which involve cutting out all carbohydrates, are extremely popular. At Rude Health we feel that there’s a general misunderstanding around gluten, grains and what it all really means. So here’s our best effort to put you out of your misery.
So what is gluten? Gluten is a sticky, stretchable protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It’s formed during the kneading process; gluten chains create a matrix that trap carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the fermenting yeast. This gives bread its chewiness, and pizza dough its stretchiness.
Coeliac disease is a very serious chronic digestive disorder in which individuals who consume gluten experience a toxic immune response. The protein triggers the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, causing diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain – definitely not something we’d wish upon ourselves. If you have coeliac disease you need to avoid any trace of gluten. There’s no cure, it has to be managed by following a gluten-free diet.
As mentioned earlier, many people don’t have coeliac disease but do follow a strictly gluten-free diet, believing it to be healthier or better for their digestion. One possible reason for the desire to change something in the diet is the growing number of people who are allergic to or intolerant of the proteins found in wheat. In the last 50 years the way we eat wheat has changed fundamentally. We are eating much, much more of it since introducing pasta, wheat based breakfast cereal and sandwiches into our diets. That’s a lot of wheat. At the same time, wheat has become much more highly refined and processed and potentially more difficult for our overworked stomachs to cope with. There’s a good chance that any digestion problems, such as bloating, are down to eating too much refined wheat specifically, rather than gluten itself. In this case the gluten-containing grains, barley, rye and even the ancient wheats such as spelt, can be included in your diet.
Whatever the reason for following a gluten-free diet, the best way to avoid it is to know exactly where it hides, and where it doesn’t.
Many foods you might not suspect contain gluten, including ale and beer. Gluten acts as a thickener in shop bought salad dressings, soy sauce, and even ice cream. Dodgy ingredients such as hydrolysed vegetable protein, modified starch and ‘natural flavourings’ are often the culprits.
Did you know that oats naturally don’t contain any gluten? The problem for coeliacs is that oats are often subject to contamination with small amounts of gluten when grown on a farm that grows wheat, rye or barley or is processed on the same machinery as wheat, rye or barley. This is why coeliacs should avoid oats unless they are strictly labelled gluten-free. The rest of us shouldn’t really need to worry, or have to pay the extra premium.
Even better news is that we’ve also been incorrectly classifying some of our seeds as grains – specifically amaranth, buckwheat groats, and quinoa, which are in fact ‘pseudo-grains’. Pseudo grains are gluten-free and are therefore great options for coeliacs, wannabe coeliacs, and general food lovers.
So all is not lost or doomed, there’s still plenty of variety to choose from. I have no intention of giving up our favourite foods, and neither should you. All you do is make sure that you use a variety of grains, we keep them whole and produce them in the most natural, sustainable way possible.
See my original post on the Rude Health blog.