What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the group of proteins (prolamins and gluelins) found primarily in wheat, barley and rye. It is what gives dough its elasticity and gives some foods their chewy texture. Some think that going gluten free means eliminating bread. But it’s much more than that! The list of products that contain gluten is long and can include some surprises. Gluten can be found in many processed foods including cold cuts, hot dogs, snack foods, salad dressings, and french fries. It can also shows up in everyday food and products like soy sauce, brown rice syrup, and even some medicines.
What are the health impacts of consuming gluten?
The health consequences of consuming gluten can range from the less severe symptoms associated with Non Celiac Disease Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) to the very serious damage which can be done in individuals with Celiac Disease.
Celiac Disease is a serious, genetic, autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the small intestine preventing nutrients from being absorbed by the body. Diarrhea, bloating, constipation, infertility, depression, anxiety, headaches and liver damage are just a few of the symptoms an individual with Celiac Disease might experience. Celiac Disease can also be related to and trigger the onset of other autoimmune disorders such as Addison’s Disease, Autoimmune Hepatitis, Multiple Sclerosis, and others. Individuals with Celiac Disease may also be at increased risk for certain cancers. It is estimated that 1 out of every 133 Americans has Celiac Disease.
Less severe symptoms can be experienced by individuals who don’t have Celiac Disease but suffer from what is called Non-Celiac Disease Gluten Sensitivity. Unlike Celiac Disease, NCGS is not an autoimmune disorder and an individual will not test positive for Celiac Disease, but can still experience similar symptoms after consuming gluten, including depression, bloating, constipation, “brain fog”, joint pain and headaches, to name a few.
Are “Gluten Free” foods really Gluten Free?
For a food to be labeled gluten free it must meet the FDA definition that it contains no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
The FDA labeling rules apply only to packaged foods that are subject to FDA labeling regulations. This means that gluten free claims can be made in a restaurant, but not meet the criteria for safe levels of gluten. Further, even a well-intentioned restaurant that labels an item gluten free in good faith (for example a gluten free pasta dish) can easily serve a dish that is well beyond safe levels of gluten due to cross-contact.
What is Cross-Contact?
Cross-contact is when an allergen, like gluten, transfers to a food that is free from that allergen.If you think the list of products that contain gluten is daunting, compound that with the challenges of avoiding cross-contact! A good example would be a hamburger. You can remove the bun from the beef patty but the beef now has been exposed to food containing gluten, making it unsafe to eat. It takes less gluten then you can visibly see for a person with celiac disease to become sick after ingestion.
Cross-contact is often confused with cross-contamination. Cross-contamination refers to bacteria and food born illness. Cross-contact can not be cooked away like bacteria. The only way to stay safe from the effects of cross-contact are to minimize or eliminate the ways in which cross-contact happens. This requires a combination of education and reasonable modifications to the food preparation process on the part of food service providers.