What exactly does the term “gluten free” on food labels mean?
Over the past few years, an increasing number of food labels have started carrying the term “gluten free”. At the same time, following a gluten-free diet has become an incredibly popular way of eating.
The trend has become so powerful that, according to an April 2017 article by the Financial Times, the demand for gluten-free products in the United States started to significantly impact the country’s wheat consumption.
But what, exactly, does “gluten free” mean? And, more importantly, should you be going the gluten-free route?
Gluten: a protein in wheat, rye and barley
Gluten is a protein that is mainly found in foods such as wheat, rye and barley. It’s also sometimes included in medicines, vitamins, supplements and cosmetic products.
Gluten is what gives bread dough made from, for example wheat flour, its elasticity. It acts like a glue, giving bread a soft, chewy texture.
Popular foods that contain gluten include breads, pastas, cakes and pastries made from wheat and rye, as well as beer, soup and cereals made from barley.
While many of the foods and products that contain gluten can be easily identified (e.g. because they contain wheat flour), the protein can also be hidden in foods, especially highly processed ones (e.g. chocolate bars).
When gluten makes you ill
While most people can easily digest gluten, some cannot tolerate it. For those diagnosed with coeliac disease, for example, just 50mg of the protein can cause damage.
In people with coeliac disease, gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. This can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food and cause a host of symptoms. It can also lead to other problems like osteoporosis, infertility, nerve damage and seizures.
In addition, a small percentage of people have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. They experience symptoms similar to those found in coeliac disease, but they don’t test positive for the condition.
If you have coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten-containing foods will form an important part of your treatment plan. However, if you haven’t been diagnosed with one of these conditions, you should be able to safely tolerate gluten.
Note that simply cutting out gluten-free foods without good reason could lead to nutrient deficiencies. If you decide to try a gluten-free diet, it’s important to check in with a registered dietitian first.
Good to know
Remember, if you suspect that you may be sensitive to gluten, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis. If you’re on a medical aid scheme, find out if they’ll cover your doctor’s visits and tests from your savings account. Even if you’re just on a hospital plan, it’s worth saving and getting a professional diagnosis and opinion.
By Carine Visagie
The Content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.