The Truth About Gluten

This article was recently published on The Huffington Post. 

Health crazes and diet trends may come and go, but every so often there are advances in the nutrition and medical field that are true game changers. For decades, individuals diagnosed with celiac disease were simply characterized with ghastly gastrointestinal problems, but with further research, this multisystemic autoimmune disorder is now known to be caused by permanent intolerance to gluten, predominantly found in genetically-susceptible individuals. Gluten is the main storage protein of wheat, rye and barley. While gluten is mainly found in foods, shockingly it is even an ingredient in everyday products such as medicines, vitamins, lip balms, play dough, toothpastes, and adhesives. Gluten wears many hats -- it provides elasticity to dough, acts as a binder in many recipes, adds flavor and protein, and lends that much-beloved chewy texture to delicious baked goods. With the increasing diagnosis of celiac disease in America, the demand for gluten-free products has skyrocketed. The food industry has strongly met those demands by putting out numerous gluten-free products, making life easier for those with a sensitivity to gluten. But those burdened by this disease are not the only ones scooping the gluten-free brownies off the shelves. Health conscious individuals are buying them too. So should you reach for your inner gluten freedom as well?

While doctors estimate just 1 percent of the population have celiac disease, marketers estimate that about 30 percent of consumers want gluten-free foods. Why? Surprisingly, even if you don't have a full-fledged gluten intolerance, you still may be slightly sensitive to it, causing symptoms ranging from bloating and discomfort to rashes. So, if you think you and gluten don't mix, you may actually be right. However, the health craze may not even be gluten-related but rather a placebo effect. Gluten shunners may actually be feeling better and lose weight because they are consuming fewer processed and fast foods and reaching for healthier options like fruits, vegetables and certain whole grains. A high-gluten diet may mean that you are over-consuming simple carbohydrates and sugars, two things that are digested quickly, making you eat more often than you should, upping your caloric intake and causing you to gain weight.

Clearly there is a fad aspect to the diet, but if it gets college kids off pizza, bagels and beer, in my opinion, the fad doesn't seem to be so bad. What we have learned is that what is more important than minimizing your gluten intake, is what you are replacing it with. A well-balanced diet full of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and lean protein will do the trick. And you have to be wary of gluten-free products. Many of them have an outrageously high fat content to compensate for the lack of flavor. Also, giving up too much gluten when you aren't gluten-sensitive may actually put you at risk for not getting enough vitamins, most commonly iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate, and decreasing bone mineral density.

But enough talk about gluten this and gluten-free that, what we all really want to know is which gluten-free products are best. There are some things to be mindful of when choosing gluten-free foods, mainly fat content and fiber. To save you from having to read a novel or every nutrition label on the shelves, I've put together this guide, which includes some of my favorite gluten-free products, available in most grocery stores. Reach your inner gluten freedom by trying out these delicious and healthy products.

Heather Bauer, RD CDN
Heather Bauer, RD CDN


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