Is gluten necessarily bad for you? We find out. By Esther Au Yong
Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour, which is the main ingredient in bread. (Photo: Ivan Mateer/www.123rf.com)
What is gluten?
Gluten is a composite protein present in wheat endosperm, the tissue that is ground to make flour. It comprises two different proteins: gliadin and glutenin.
Gluten nourishes the plant embryo during seed germination and later, affects the elasticity of dough (the chewiness of breads, for example, is dependent on gluten).
Though “true gluten” is sometimes defined as being specific to wheat, gluten is often said to be part of other cereal grains — including rye, barley and various cross-breeds.
Is gluten bad?
Gluten is not bad per se, but some people are gluten-intolerant. This means they experience an abnormal immune response when their digestive system breaks down gluten from what and other grains.
What is coeliac disease?
Coeliac disease is the most well-known form of gluten intolerance.
When someone with coeliac disease consumes gluten, it triggers an immune response that damages their intestines. This, in turn, prevents sufferers from absorbing vital nutrients.
Doctors typically recommend a gluten-free diet. Besides bread, people with coeliac disease should avoid items like pasta, sauces including soy sauce, French fries and cookies (unless these items are labelled gluten-free). However, many foods are naturally gluten-free, such as eggs, most dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meats, and grains like rice and quinoa.
What is non-coeliac gluten sensitivity?
Recently, scientists have found another form of intolerance called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. After consuming gluten, patients with gluten sensitivity may experience many symptoms of coeliac disease. These are signs such as diarrhea, tiredness and joint pain, but these sufferers do not usually have damaged intestines.
Are there any issues with a gluten-free diet?
In recent years, many people without gluten intolerance have taken up gluten-free diets. Is this safe?
Well, here’s what a Harvard professor had to say: “People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money, because these [gluten-free] products are expensive,” says Dr Daniel A Leffler, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Going gluten-free can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies too. So, do consider a multivitamin and/or multimineral supplement if you take this step.
Of course, you should get your doctor’s advice before you make any medical decisions.