Gluten: Friend, Foe or Switzerland?

Yours truly here is down for the count.  As an individual who in the last 24 hours has drunk eight cups of herbal tea, used a Neti pot three times, and woke up with four Halls wrappers in her bed, I think it’s safe to say that springtime is officially kicking my pollen-sensitive butt. Just in the nick of time too.  School’s winding down, finals are approaching, graduation is looming, and I am currently in search of my future apartment for the fall in a city that sits 1200 miles away from where I currently reside. Stress?! What stress? But enough about me, let’s talk about gluten!

Gluten.  As food companies promote gluten-free products and our grocer’s shelves become more stocked with them each day, many people have come to the logical verdict that gluten must be a dietary enemy.  It’s similar to when you see products labeled “No MSG” or “No High Fructose Corn Syrup”.  If companies are advertising these ingredients aren’t in their products, the general public naturally assumes they must be harmful.  In some instances, this may be true. However, when it comes to gluten, that’s just not the case.
I once had someone ask me why gluten was so bad for her.  I must have given her a rather quizzical look. A look involving facial expressions one might have when viewing the bearded lady at the circus. Having interpreted my facial language, she followed her question up with, “well there’s all these gluten-free products out there and I’ve heard of a few people voluntarily adopting a gluten-free diet.”

 

So what is gluten anyway?  Gluten is simply a protein complex that forms when wheat, barley or rye flour mixes with water and the batter/dough is manipulated (stirring, kneading, or beating).  Gluten is responsible for the texture of many of our favorite baked goods, such as bread or muffins. The protein network that develops controls the product’s cell size and volume.  What am I talking about when I refer to cell size and volume? See below.

 

Those pockets of air are also called cells.  As you may well know, these large aerated cells make for some deliciously soft bread. Yum.In order to make products gluten-free, one must use alternative flours, such as rice or potato.  The downside with gluten free baked goods is you often end up with a heavy, dense, and tough final product.  I’m not saying all gluten-free products are bad, however many of them are reminiscent of the low carb options bakeries were churning out in the early 2000s. A glorious time when the carbohydrate was as cherished by active fad dieters as profanity on Sesame Street.

Part of my Medical Nutrition Therapy class required me to follow a gluten-free diet for a couple of days and as the old saying goes, you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone. By the end of the project, I felt like a psych experiment.  I had developed an eye twitch and chewed off the majority of my fingernails. I never realized how frequently I consume products that contain gluten. I survived on nothing but eggs, fruit, vegetables and peanut butter. I tried gluten-free pancakes and bread, but they fell drastically short.  Not to mention they were expensive!

So now that we’re all familiar with gluten, why are there gluten-free products out there?Individuals with Celiac’s Disease have a gluten sensitivity.  Basically, their GI tracts have an abnormal response to this stuff. Side effects can be pretty unpleasant because an immune reaction takes place in the small intestine. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, intermittent diarrhea, and bloating.  Malabsorption of food is also occurring and can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, weight loss, muscle cramping, even osteoporosis.

My Top 3 Encountered Gluten Misconceptions
Myth #1: Everyone should avoid gluten

False. Only individuals who need to avoid gluten are those with Celiac’s Disease or other gluten intolerance issues.

Myth #2: A gluten-free diet is healthier for everyone
False.  This sudden boom in gluten-free products is great for those with Celiac’s Disease or other gluten intolerance issues.  Gluten free products simply allow these individuals to eat foods they would not normally have been able to eat, such as pasta, pancakes, breads, and cereals (think anything wheat, rye, or barley based).Myth #3: A gluten-free diet is a perfect weight loss diet
False. In fact, gluten free products tend to be higher in sugar, fat, and overall calories; the antichrist for trying to drop a few lbs.

Want more information on Celiac’s Disease? Here is a link to the Mayo Clinic’s Celiac Disease page.  Mayo Clinic – Celiac Disease 

Come back Monday for Part one of May’s Nutrition Hot Topic!

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