GFHV News: What Is Gluten Free, Anyway?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Gluten Free Hudson Valley’s sister site, Gluten Free Staten Island. You can find its original version here.


Jimmy Kimmel showcased this hilarious man-on-the-street skit where he interviewed Los Angeles pedestrians with one simple question: What is gluten?

“What is this thing that you will not eat?”

Jimmy Kimmel

Good question, Jimmy. Gluten free has been a buzz word for a few years now, but it’s relatively new here on Staten Island, where it still feels like it’s 1998. By the time newfangled trends disembark the ferry from Manhattan, they’re already dying. (Like when the Staten Island Mall finally got a Crumbs…and then this happened.)

Is gluten free food magical health food?

Nope – what makes it special is that it’s not toxic to those who have medical conditions. Gluten free food, for the most part, has fewer nutrients than its gluten counterparts, along with more sugar, because something has to compensate for the lack of dates.

Sadly, this is not the case, and many misinformed and well-meaning people who want to take charge of their lives may go gluten free unnecessarily.

What is gluten, anyway? Who’s cutting it out – and why?

Gluten is a category of proteins, one of the four that are found in wheat and other grains, and consists of two subsets: glutenins and gliadins. In conversational terms, gluten is the “elastic-y” protein that helps bread maintain its consistency and doughiness. This French experiment distributed by the American Association of Cereal Chemists shows you what glutenin and gliadin look like under a microscope on pages 3-4.

These proteins are most commonly found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats, but they are also in many other forms in processed food, including modified food starch, salad dressing, soy sauce, candy and many other processed foods. In people suffering from Celiac disease, their bodies have an inability to process the protein. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which their body reacts in an inflammatory manner, and may not be able to digest the nutrients hidden inside the grain at all. If I imagined these diseases as knights defending a castle (a.k.a. the human body), the Celiac disease knight would beat back any gluten that even attempted to access the castle gates. Nobody’s getting in.

Undiagnosed Celiac disease in children, for instance, often presents as short stature, nutritional deficiencies and even anemia. Despite however much they eat, they may not be growing because they are not absorbing the nutrients. Although Celiac disease has been in existence since roughly the second century A.D., incidence of Celiac disease in the U.S. has risen to roughly 1% of the population – quadrupling, researchers hypothesize, from its studied latency in the 1950s.

However, there are also other medical reasons to go gluten free, including:

Gluten intolerance (also referred to as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity):

Blood tests and an endoscopy are the golden standard of Celiac disease testing, but individuals without Celiac disease may also have several health problems because of gluten. On the street, this is referred to as gluten intolerance. In the medical community, gluten intolerance distinguishes itself from other medical maladies because of its function. It is innate, and nonspecific – think of gluten intolerance as the angry knight who fights the same enemy storming the gate every day, yet has no memory of doing the exact same thing the day before. Innate responses are not autoimmune diseases, so eating gluten will not attack the internal body tissue – symptoms are more likely to rear up outside the gastrointestinal area, and may not be immediately spotted, including up to days after the substance is ingested. Symptoms of gluten intolerance include peripheral neuropathy, headaches, and joint pain.

Wheat allergy:

Hey there, this is what I have! Wheat allergy is extremely rare. The only study I’ve been able to dig up is an extremely limited study on 22 Japanese adults in which the prevalence was determined to be 0.21%. Wheat allergies typically develop in childhood and tend to disappear around ages 3 to 5 according to the Mayo Clinic. If you develop it as an adult, it’s generally stuck with you for life. Wheat allergy, like many other severe allergies, can result in migraines, stomachaches, hives, and even anaphylaxis (in non-medical terms: this is a severe, rapid reaction after interaction with the offending food that may result in constriction of the airways and even death. This can occur even if you have no other symptoms, such as a rash or hives.) In my head, I think of wheat allergy as the cranky old knight who has no life and never leaves his post, defending the castle like crazy for any. little. intruder. that comes my way. I’m so sensitive to wheat that even ingesting a few crumbs can lead to symptoms.

Baker’s asthma:

To be medically correct, Baker’s asthma is a subset of wheat allergy. It can also result in anaphylaxis in severe cases. Baker’s asthma symptoms are caused by inhalation, not digestion. The Baker’s asthma knight would only show up when the king ordered him to – only in very specific situations.

Wheat dependent exercise induced anaphylaxis:

Food-dependent exercise induced anaphylaxis (FDEIA) is in its own category of anaphylaxis and is not classified as an allergy. A person with WDEIA may have low titer levels of IgE antibodies to whatever they’re sensitive to (a person with a wheat allergy, by contrast, would have high levels of IgE antibodies for the food.) People with this condition rarely have a traditional reaction to wheat, as seen above. Their symptoms only appear if they exercise after ingesting the food – timing is everything, as they say – so people can go for years without being diagnosed (if it all.) This 2007 study from Allergy, Asthma, and Clinical Immunology is an interesting read on a woman who has FDEIA with chickpeas, although wheat is the most common food associated with FDEIA. If WDEIA were a knight, he’d be like the bouncer of the castle, checking the ID of everyone who comes in, but only freaking out if something big (in this case, exercise!) happened right after.

I don’t have any of these conditions…should I eat gluten free?

My personal belief is that a gluten free diet, like any other kind of diet, can be restrictive if you don’t have a medical reason to do so. However, if you’re incorporating gluten free foods in their natural form (fresh vegetables and fruit, meat, eggs, and dairy) and less of the processed stuff, good for you! If you feel good and have the green light from your healthcare providers, I see no harm in pursuing a gluten free diet. I am in no way a medical professional and urge you to seek the help of a medical doctor and a nutritionist before making any changes in your diet.* That being said, if I didn’t have a wheat allergy, but I would still enjoy the same quality of life I do now if I went gluten free, I would easily do it all over again. It would just be a lot less stressful because my life wouldn’t be on the line every time I ate out.

photo by flickr user katethebake

photo by flickr user katethebake

This gluten free bread has just as many calories as its gluten counterpart. Psych out – so not health food, even though gluten free food is commonly marketed as such.

Side note: there are zero benefits to choosing gluten free products over their Chock Full O’ Gluten counterparts if you don’t have the above medical conditions. Gluten free Oreos are not calorie-free nor magically good for you – they’re just not harmful the way gluten would be if you have any of the above medical conditions. (In fact, they’re not even Oreos. These are the only ones I’ve found available on Staten Island that are pretty darn close to the real thing.)

Got more questions? Comments? Know of better places to find gluten free “Oreos”? Leave ’em below and I’ll get back to you.

*Disclaimer: I did not do this, and although I stand by this decision, for sheer safety and insurance reasons, please consult your doctor before you go eating anything. Or not eating anything. Participating in a gluten free diet can lead to negative blood tests despite having the disease. Please do not use this blog for any kind of medical or health advice and consult your physician instead.

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