Thursday, February 9, 2012

All About Gluten

Upon walking down the grocery store aisles, you may have come across several foods that are "gluten free."  They're not uncommon to see, and that simple phrase often finds its way onto cracker boxes, breads, soups, and all sorts of other products.  You may even have heard the phrase "gluten intolerant," and may know someone who has this condition.  But chances are, you're not really sure what gluten actually is, where it comes from, what it does, and why some people can't digest it.  Well, hopefully this article will clear things up, and you'll be able to look at those kinds of foods with a new sense of knowledge and understanding.  Hey, you might even try a few.

Gluten, unfortunately, is a pretty complicated substance.  It's what's called a "composite," and is made up of several different proteins.  It's usually found in wheat products, though there's a whole list of other grains that gluten can be found in, including rye, semolina, and barley.  If you're at all interested, the specific proteins found in gluten are: albumins, globulins, gletlins, and prolamins.  Pretty fancy names eh?  In the most basic terms, gluten is just another piece of the puzzle when it comes to grains.  It's just nature...right?

Gluten is usually used as an additive in the food industry to add texture to bread products, like crusts, muffins, or crackers.  Gluten can make things chewy and more substantial, "firmer" in a certain sense.  This makes it extremely useful for all sorts of baked goods.  Gluten is also an excellent protein source, containing about 23 g per quarter cup.  It's also an excellent source of iron.

So why take it out of food?  Why are there such huge advocates of gluten-free diets?  Is the stuff secretly bad for you?  How could it be?  It's just part of grains, and grains are healthy...right?  Well, the good news is that gluten isn't as bad for you as certain people make it out to be.  In fact, as mentioned above, gluten can be quite healthy in certain regards.  However, there is a good percentage of people that can't digest gluten, and suffer from what's called "gluten intolerance."

While this could come about from a wheat allergy, the most common form of gluten intolerance is a disease called celiac disease.  This disease isn't a fun one (not that any disease really is...), and basically prevents your body from absorbing the nutrients normally obtained through food.  How does it manifest itself?  Well, of all things, gluten is the culprit.  For people with celiac disease, consumed gluten actually damages the small intestine through a malfunctioning auto-immune response to the gluten itself.  Your body basically attacks its own intestines, and damages their abilities to absorb nutrients.  Not good.  Not good at all.

People who suffer from celiac disease, or another form of gluten intolerance, have to go on what are called gluten free diets.  These diets aren't easy, and used to be ridiculously restrictive (because so many things contain gluten), but the food options for gluten intolerant individuals are gradually increasing.  Generally all one has to do to find a gluten free variety of their favorite food is to look a little harder on the grocery store shelves. Most companies produce a gluten free variety of their popular products.

So what are the symptoms of gluten intolerance/celiac disease?

Celiac Disease Symptoms In Adults:

Celiac Disease Symptoms In Children:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal distention
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Intermittent diarrhea
  • Malodorous flatulence
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Delayed growth, stunted growth or Failure to Thrive
  • Grayish stools with a foul odor
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis
  • Urticaria

Those are two lists I pulled off of the first reference listed.  Now many are common occurrences with all sorts of diseases, so you'll definitely want to talk to your doctor about whether or not you may be gluten intolerant.  

But is gluten itself bad?  No, it isn't.  It's just certain bodies can't digest it, and in turn those people become very malnourished and sick quite quickly, without any real obvious reason.  Even people with extremely healthy diets can become quite sickly if they are unknowingly gluten intolerant.  I may suggest trying out a gluten free diet if you're experiencing a few of these symptoms.  Who knows, it may help.

So hopefully you now know a little more about gluten, its composition, its role in our bodies, and how it affects certain people.  Now you can look at those gluten free packages and know exactly what's up.  Cool...right?



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