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Just over a decade ago, the word “gluten” may not have been in your vocabulary. Today, however, there’s an entire section of the supermarket dedicated to food products completely void of it. So, why the hype? Below, we break down what gluten is, why some people may need to avoid it, and what food products you’ll find it in.
Gluten is a protein found in all forms of wheat (such as spelt and farro), rye, and barley. It’s responsible for giving baked goods their elasticity, volume, and texture. Chewy, dense bread products have more gluten development – an elastic network that develops during baking – than light, flakey pastries.
The gluten-free diet is recommended for anyone diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten. It’s also for people with an intolerance to digesting gluten, or gluten sensitivity.
Celiac disease is a disorder of the intestinal tract. When individuals with celiac disease eat foods with gluten in them, they experience an immune response. This response can damage the small intestine. It also causes food and nutrients, such as iron, folate, calcium, and vitamin D, to pass through the digestive system without being absorbed.
For individuals with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, they will not produce antibodies to gluten or show signs of damage to the intestines. However, they may have symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, and gastrointestinal distress, after eating gluten-containing foods.
According to a 2012 study published in Gastroenterology, approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population, or 3 million people, has celiac disease. Another study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016 found that from 2009 to 2014, the prevalence of celiac disease remained stable in the U.S. population. Yet, gluten-free diets increased in popularity during that time.
This continued interest in the gluten-free diet could likely be due to the “health halo” surrounding gluten-free foods and the subsequent increase in gluten-free products available in the market, as well as an increasing number of individuals self-diagnosing with gluten sensitivity.
Common gluten-containing foods include breads, crackers, cereals, pancakes, pasta, pizza, granola bars, cookies, pies, and cakes.
Some foods can contain hidden gluten, such as wheat starch, in the form of additives like thickeners, stabilizers, and flavors. Frequently overlooked items that may contain gluten are salad dressings, marinades, soy sauce, soups, processed meats, meat substitutes (such as veggie burgers), ice creams, and chocolate bars.
Even though oats and products containing oats are naturally gluten-free, they are often excluded in a gluten-free diet due to cross-contamination of wheat gluten during growing and processing.
Other hidden gluten-containing ingredients you’ll want to be aware of include malt, malt extract, malt flavoring, semolina, and triticale.
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you can still enjoy a wide variety of naturally gluten-free grains such as rice, corn, quinoa, buckwheat, and millet. And remember, aside from wheat, rye, and barley, all other whole foods are naturally gluten-free! You can enjoy nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, vegetables, soy, seafood, meat, and poultry.
McKenzie is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, nutrition writer and communicator, who truly loves meeting and connecting with people. Grounded in science with an integrative and holistic approach, she aims to make the world a healthier, happier place by helping people feel their best from the inside out and encouraging others to restore a judgment-free relationship with food. McKenzie has been a contributing editor for the award-winning publicationEnvironmental Nutrition and her numerous articles, nutrition tips, and recipes can be found in publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Today’s Dietitian, Food and Nutrition Magazine, and more.
McKenzie graduated magna cum laude from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo with a degree in Nutrition and completed her dietetic internship at Bastyr University in Seattle. She is a member of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a member of the dietetic practice group, Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine. When she’s not dishing out nutrition tidbits, you can find McKenzie cooking in her sunny kitchen, hiking along with her favorite Southern California trails, or packing her bags and heading out for her next adventure.