Rewind a decade or so, and very few people followed a gluten free diet, let alone knew what gluten was. Fast-forward to present day, and gluten-free products and menus have taken the world by storm, with everyone from ‘diet gurus’ to Kim Kardashian singing the praises of a life without gluten.
So let’s take a crash course in gluten: what is it, and why all the hate?
Gluten – what is it?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains, including barley, rye, freekeh, spelt, bulgar, and possibly oats.
Responsible for the stretchy, elastic fibres formed from kneading dough, gluten gives rise to a chewy-textured, well-risen bread, and ensures that baked products and pastas keep their shape. In culinary terms, it’s very difficult to emulate the sensory characteristics gluten offers, as those who follow a gluten-free diet can attest.
Who should avoid it?
Those with Coeliac disease or non-Coeliac gluten sensitivity.
It might surprise you to know that gluten intolerance alone doesn’t amount to Coeliac disease, nor does feeling better after excluding bread and pasta.
According to Coeliac Australia, the condition occurs when the immune system has an abnormal reaction to gluten, and causes severe damage to the finger-like projections (villi) that line the gastrointestinal wall. Continued consumption of gluten inflames the bowel and flattens the villi, resulting in reduced nutrient absorption and great discomfort in many forms. Coeliac disease is genetic and affects approximately 1 in 70 Australians, up to 80% of whom are currently undiagnosed.
As for non-Coeliac gluten sensitivity, this is what’s used to describe the source symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, lethargy and poor concentration often attributed to gluten intolerance, but manifesting in one who does not have Coeliac disease. Diagnosis can be a long and frustrating process, as the condition is not fully understood. In fact, some studies suggest that the root of these issues may not be gluten at all, but rather the malabsorption of fermentable sugars (FODMAPs).
Is there any benefit to following a gluten-free diet if I’m not in one of these groups?
No. In the absence of Coeliac disease or related medical conditions, your body is able to digest gluten without any health consequences. Those claiming their energy levels are through the roof since ridding their lives of gluten are simply buying into misinformation or experiencing a placebo effect, as there is no scientific evidence to support the alleged health benefits of a gluten-free diet.
Of course, in some ways, following a gluten-free diet is conducive to good health, as it excludes many unhealthy gluten-containing foods while permitting whole foods like fruit, vegetables, fresh meat and fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy foods and olive oil. But then, any reasonable, balanced diet could give you the same result: cutting out donuts, muffins and cheeseburgers is always going to be good for your health.
Are there any risks to following a gluten free diet unnecessarily?
The funny thing is, those who shun gluten with no reason generally believe it’s a healthier choice, that gluten-free options are automatically virtuous and healthy. The fact is, gluten free products – particularly baked goods like breads, cereals, biscuits and pastries – are difficult to make palatable. This is because, without gluten, a desirable texture is hard to match; in its absence, a wide range of extra ingredients are needed, some affecting the flavour, and all of them boosting the price significantly. The result? According to the results of an independent Choice review, gluten-free versions of common supermarket items are not only comparably pricey, but also as a whole higher in kilojoules, fat and sugar, and lower in fibre.
If you’re following a gluten-free diet, you’ve probably cut out breads and cereals. According to Dietitian Catherine Saxelby, the gluten-free alternatives are often lower in essential nutrients than their gluten-filled counterparts, and also miss out on the mandatory folate fortification that our regular bread flour receives.
What are some substitutes suitable for a gluten free diet?
The good news for those unable to go near gluten is that, due to the increasing demand, practically every cafe and restaurant now caters to your needs. And since avoiding gluten appears to have become fashionable, labelling has never been clearer. Many foods, even those that naturally contain no gluten, now proudly proclaim themselves to be ‘Gluten Free!’ in an effort to cash in on dietary fads.
But not all products are so clear. Advanced Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Coeliac expert (and one of my amazing lecturers) Sue Shepherd, knows just about everything there is to know about living without gluten, as she has done so for many years, and has built a career around helping others with dietary intolerances. She explains that a gluten-free diet is far more complex than merely eliminating breads and cereals, as gluten is often used in a number of unlikely foods like confectionary, processed meats, dressings, sauces and condiments, medications, beer, etc.
There are plenty of foods that can be tolerated though. The most commonly used gluten-free grains and starches are:
- Almond meal
- Hazelnut meal
- Potato starch
- Coconut flour
- Oats (some)