Eat Gluten-Free?

The Expanding Gluten Craze

A little over four years ago, gluten-free food was almost unheard of. Today, gluten-free food has carved out a very profitable market, and it is growing by billions each year. Grocery stores have been stocking gluten-free products, and gluten-free dieting has become one of the latest weight-loss fads. Can you Eat Gluten-Free?

Science of Cooking With Gluten

Gluten is a protein that is most commonly desired in the baking of bread dough. This protein is what traps gas bubbles and stretches as the dough bakes. The result is chewy bread that exemplifies a good loaf.  Gluten also gives breads, cakes, and cookies structure. Without it, the results can end up as weak or brittle. The gluten protein helps to determine if your result comes out as a chewy cookie or a hard-baked shortbread.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease affects approximately one percent of the human population. It is a chronic digestive disorder that mounts an immune response when any amount of gluten is ingested. The reaction causes inflammation in the small intestines, which leads to damage of the intestinal lining and nutrients not being absorbed.

The resulting damage can cause gastro-intestinal distress, anemia, fatigue, and even weight-loss. If ignored, this body-response eventually deprives vital organs of nourishment.  More than 2 million people today may have celiac disease, yet only a fraction have been diagnosed. It can be asymptomatic for years or have symptoms that overlap with other medical issues.

With recent testing and awareness, health professionals have been observing non-celiac gluten sensitivity within the population. It can be as simple as feeling a little queasy after eating a sandwich or some toast. Gluten sensitivity can produce similar symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, and stomach cramps, though without the damage to the small intestine. This sensitivity has caught the attention of food companies, who are always looking to cater to a new market.

There is no cure. The only thing that can be done is to maintain a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten-Free Eating

If you are a celiac, then a gluten-free diet is pretty much mandatory. Even though gluten is most commonly associated with breads and baked-goods, it is actually in more foods than one might expect. Because of the chemistry of cooking with gluten, it is commonly found as an ingredient in: salad dressing, sauces, broth, soup, and “fake” meat, to name a few. The elastic properties of gluten is desired as a thickening component or to give a tender, silky texture.

There are healthy options for those who must sacrifice gluten, yet still want to enjoy similar foods. Popular substitutions are: quinoa, grits, nut meal, polenta, and flax. Make sure the packaging indicates gluten-free. Labels that say “can contain gluten” mean the product may be subject to cross-contamination. It is best to double-check with the manufacturer if there is any uncertainty, just to make sure the food hasn’t been processed with gluten products.

Gluten-Free Diet Fad

Celebrities have boosted the popularity of gluten-free eating, touting it as a sure-fire way to stay skinny. The truth is that it is no more than a spin on the Atkins diet.Gluten-free eating is not a weight-loss plan nor is it some cure-all for other conditions, aside from celiac disease. People who have lost weight by going gluten-free have done so because they’ve ultimately cut out all sources of carbs in their diet.

Many people don’t realize that gluten-free eating does not mean fat-free or calorie-free, which is the healthier and more consistent method of weight-loss. In fact, gluten-free eating can potentially hinder attempts at losing weight. Without the chemical properties of gluten, food manufacturers often use sugar and fat as substitutes to improve the taste and consistency. This usually means gluten-free foods are prone to containing more butter, oil, or eggs, which carry a higher calorie content. The real key to weight loss is the management of caloric intake.

On top of that, many gluten-free foods have refined grains that have been stripped of their nutrients (fiber, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium). The insult to bodily injury is that gluten-free alternatives can cost at least double than that of their gluten-laden counterparts.


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