The terms “gluten” and “gluten-free” seem ubiquitous in the food industry today. An increasing number of food industry players, from brands to manufacturers to restaurants, are revamping their offerings to attract this growing segment of consumers.
According to current projections, by 2020, the market for gluten-free foods will be valued at more than $7.5 billion. However, despite the prevalence of gluten-free products, many consumers are still unclear about what exactly gluten is, and why so many people are avoiding it.
For a closer look at what gluten-free diets are all about, read on for some helpful gluten facts provided by the International Food Information Council Foundation.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the general term for the proteins that are found in three major grains: wheat, rye, and barley. These proteins act as a kind of glue that holds food together and helps it keep its shape.
Bread is one of the best examples of gluten at work: its doughy, elastic structure and texture are due to gluten. Besides baked goods, gluten can be found in many other types of foods, as it is often used as a thickening agent or flavor enhancer.
What foods commonly contain gluten?
Any products that are made with wheat, barley, or rye will contain gluten. This includes foods made with wheat flour, wheat bran, or wheat germ, such as bulgur or couscous; foods with barley malt or extract, malt vinegar, or brewer’s yeast, including beer; and any foods containing rye flour, rye berries, or rye extract.
“Hidden” gluten is also found in many unexpected foods. These include deli meats, salad dressings, and vegetable protein products like veggie burgers, as well as licorice and other confections.
Who is eating gluten-free?
Gluten affects people in different ways. The vast majority of Americans experience no side effects from the consumption of gluten. Others avoid gluten due to certain medical conditions such as the following:
Celiac disease. In this autoimmune disorder, the immune system generates antibodies to gluten. As a result, when gluten is consumed, it causes damage to the intestines. Over time, the damage can become so severe that the intestines are no longer able to absorb nutrients properly. This can result in prolonged malnutrition and related long-term health issues. For those with celiac disease, a lifelong, strictly gluten-free diet is a medical necessity.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Individuals who experience side effects from eating gluten but have tested negative for celiac disease and/or wheat allergy are typically given a diagnosis of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The symptoms of this sensitivity are similar to those of celiac disease. However, the body does not create antibodies to gluten and no intestinal damage occurs.
To reduce symptoms and optimize health, a gluten-free diet is medically necessary for these people. Because it is not certain if consuming small amounts of gluten poses any long-term health risks, the choice of how strict a gluten-free diet to adhere to is up to each individual.
Wheat allergy. People who have a severe allergy to wheat may choose to avoid gluten altogether, even from non-wheat-based sources. This reduces the risk of accidentally ingesting wheat through cross contact.
Other conditions. It is possible for people with autism and some autoimmune disorders (such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis) to experience reduced symptoms by following a gluten-free diet. However, it’s important to understand that a gluten-free diet is not supported by current medical literature as an effective treatment for everyone with these conditions.
Consequently, a gluten-free diet is not considered to be a medical necessity for these individuals. Rather, physicians and registered dieticians should work with patients on a case-by-base basis to determine whether or not a gluten-free diet would be beneficial.
Is a gluten-free diet a healthier choice?
A growing number of people who do not have to follow a gluten-free diet out of medical necessity are choosing to do so with the goal of living a healthier lifestyle. They are often inspired by celebrities, athletes, or other influencers who claim that avoiding gluten is a healthier way to live and/or an effective way to lose weight.
However, current evidence does not indicate that simply removing gluten from the diet leads to weight loss. Nor does it show that there are any health benefits to avoiding gluten when not medically necessary. It’s also important to understand that gluten-free products in and of themselves are not necessarily healthy.
In particular, processed gluten-free products may still be high in starches, fats, sugars, and refined grains, while also being low in nutrients. Fortunately, however, many foods that are typically recommended as part of a healthy diet are naturally gluten-free. These include vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and fish.
Are all gluten-free foods labeled accordingly?
Under FDA rules, any food products labeled “gluten-free” must contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. That is because this is the limit that is considered safe for the majority of people with celiac disease. However, at present, gluten-free labeling is voluntary. This means not all foods containing less than 20 ppm of gluten are labeled “gluten-free.”