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What even is gluten and why do some people have a gluten intolerance? An investigation.

Mamamia logo Mamamia 2/12/2018
Gluten free breads © Getty Gluten free breads

Gluten gets a bad rap these days.

There are gluten-free alternatives for nearly everything and you’ve definitely got at least one mate who follows a gluten-free diet… But why?

What is gluten? Where did it come from? Is it really that bad? Do I need to give up bread forever? (Please, no!)

Mamamia spoke with accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for Nutrition Australia Aloysa Hourigan to get the low down on gluten.

What the heck is gluten, anyway?

Gluten is a plant protein that occurs in many staple grains such as wheat, rye, oats, barley, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), Aloysa says.

“When cooking with these grains, gluten contributes to the cooking and baking properties of foods prepared from these grains, providing elasticity to the texture of the end product.”

Is gluten bad for you?

No. For most people, gluten is perfectly fine as part of an overall balanced diet.

“However, if people have coeliac disease or are gluten intolerant but do not have coeliac disease, then gluten is not good for their health and needs to be totally avoided in the case of coeliac disease, and greatly minimised in the case of gluten intolerance,” Aloysa explains.

Why do some people have an intolerance to gluten and what is the difference between an intolerance and coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an auto-immune disease, where there is a permanent, intestinal intolerance to gluten and the body produces antibodies to gluten, which cause damage to the gut lining and other body tissues.

Currently, the only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet and not adhering to one can be damaging.

“[If coeliacs continue to eat gluten] there is a greatly increased risk of many other health problems such as general chronic poor health, osteoporosis, certain types of cancer, depression, poor growth and development in children, and infertility in adults,” Aloysa says.

Coeliac disease is not completely random – there is a particular gene that can predispose you to the disease.

“If you do not have this gene, you will not develop coeliac disease. However, if you do have the gene, it does not necessarily mean you will develop coeliac disease, but there is a risk that you could.

“If you have the coeliac gene, the risk of developing the disease will depend on whether the gene is expressed – and this may occur at any time throughout life.”

However, it’s still possible to not have the coeliac gene and still seem to have an intolerance – this is called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and is more like to be part of a broader food intolerance/food sensitivity problem, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

According to Aloysa, “minimising gluten in the diet has also been associated with supporting better health and wellbeing outcomes for some people who are living with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome – it is not seen as the cause of the problem, but may impact on management of symptoms.”

There is also research underway that looks at the impact of excess gluten and neurological/mental health problems – but evidence is limited and more research is needed.

How can you be tested for coeliac disease?

“If you are thinking of being tested for coeliac disease, it is essential that there is adequate gluten in your diet for 4-6 weeks before testing, otherwise the blood tests and/or endodoscopy results may not be valid, Aloysa says.

She recommends talking to your doctor or accredited practising dietitian to find out more about how much gluten you need to be consuming regularly before being tested for coeliac disease.

You can also be tested for the coeliac gene. This will not tell you if you have the disease, but it will show whether you are at risk of developing it.

What foods are gluten-free?

Aloysa says preparing gluten-free foods and products requires a substitute for the starches that contain gluten.

In food processing, the main starches used initially are either wheat, barley, rice or corn. If the starch used initially in the manufacturing process is rice or corn then the products will be gluten free, and Aloysa points out that this needs to be clearly identified on the label.

If you’re after gluten-free grains and starches, here is a handy list:

  • Amaranth
  • Arrowroot
  • Buckwheat
  • Cassava
  • Chick pea
  • Coconut
  • Lentils
  • Maize/corn
  • Potato
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Sago
  • Sorghum
  • Soy
  • Sweet Potato
  • Tapioca
  • Taro

Are gluten-free products healthier?

Nope. Just because something is ‘gluten-free’ does not mean it is necessarily better for you.

In many cases, the absence of gluten means saturated fats, sugar or salt may be added to improve the taste or texture of a product.

Aloysa said it is important to check the nutrition information panel on food labels to decide if the product is healthy.

Nutrition Australia has helpful information about understanding food labels.

Pictures: 31 irresistible gluten-free recipes

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