GLUTEN – friend, foe or fashionable?

The rise in popularity of gluten or rather lack of it over the last few years has astounded me. The range of gluten free products available on the market has increased significantly. A potential plus for the 1 in a 100 people suffering with Coeliac disease in the UK.

What I find more irritating than astounding though is the number of people who seem to now believe gluten free to be synonymous with healthy. I recently attended the Good Food Eatwell Show and was amazed by the number of so called ‘health foods’ on offer who were falling over themselves to tell me excitedly they were both gluten and dairy free. I resisted the temptation to say ‘so what?!’

Let’s get a few things straight!

For something to be defined as gluten free it has to contain no more than 20 parts per million – how many products claiming gluten free status can also claim to have been tested to that degree? But is it important to be that specific I hear you say?

Well, yes it is. Coeliac disease is a serious illness where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease.

There is also an emerging condition known as non- coeliac gluten sensitivity where symptoms similar to coeliac disease are experienced, but it is unclear how the immune system is involved and there is no damage to the lining of the gut. More research is needed to understand the condition and who is at risk.

So what is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in the cereals wheat, rye and barley. Some people also react to a similar protein found in oats. Perhaps the people in this hilarious clip from an American chat show should learn that. Click here
 for a giggle.

Confusion arises as by excluding gluten, other food components are also excluded from the diet by default such as fructans also found in wheat. These are one of a group of compounds which have been found to cause pain and bloating in some individuals.  Without a formal diagnosis or structured diet therapy, diets can often be manipulated completely inappropriately.

So what’s the bottom line?

Well, this week (11th-17th May) is Coeliac Awareness week
and Coeliac UK warn that people may be potentially linking their symptoms to other conditions or not treating them seriously enough to seek further help. It is important that symptoms are investigated and a diagnosis is sought.

If you suspect you may have an issue with gluten, do not exclude it, but rather see your GP to get tested for Coeliac disease. Whatever the outcome seek professional dietary advice through referral to a registered dietitian or self- refer via www.freelancedietitians.org

And finally, if you are avoiding gluten purely on the basis that you think it’s healthier to do so or just fashionable, think again!

Image courtesy of “Triticum compactum0″. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triticum_compactum0.jpg#/media/File:Triticum_compactum0.jpg

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