Gluten is a protein naturally found in some grains including wheat, barley, and rye. It acts like a binder, holding food together and adding a “stretchy” quality. Other grains that contain gluten are wheat berries, spelt, durum, emmer, semolina, farina, farro, graham, khorasan wheat, einkorn, and triticale (a blend of wheat and rye). Oats—though naturally gluten free—often contain gluten from cross-contamination when they are grown near, or processed in the same facilities as the grains listed above. Gluten is also sold as wheat gluten, or seitan. Gluten is naturally occurring, but it can be extracted, concentrated and added to food and other products to add protein, texture and flavour. It also works as a binding agent to hold processed foods together and give them shape. If you look at the back of many foods in the supermarket you will find it contains gluten, so it is everywhere!
It’s important to understand the difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition affecting a very small percentage of the general population. The reaction that takes place in the case of celiac is quite severe- The body produces antibodies to itself in the presence of gluten that can lead to an array of health issues. Unlike celiac disease, a gluten intolerance is not autoimmune reactions. So although a person with a gluten intolerance may experience discomfort when exposed to the protein, the reaction is not the same.
Gluten intolerance is also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It is when someone has a reaction when consuming gluten containing products which can take many forms but that doesn’t fit into the allergy or celiac box. This is the most common problem that people face.
The unusual structure of gluten proteins makes them very difficult to digest by humans. Therefore, the final product of digestion is a mixture of cytotoxic, immunomodulartory, gut permeating, chemoattractant peptides that induce immune responses.
But is it all that bad and why has gluten intolerance become so popular recently?
Let’s go back 5000 years.. Foods made from wheat have the highest amounts of gluten and bread is one of the most common foods made from wheat. Bread was the product of locally grown grains, hand ground and milled, combined with fresh ingredients and yeast then fermented for hours or days, baked and eaten that day or at worst the following day. It went stale in a day. Bread of today is nothing like this bread. Fermentation is a critical part of this description. Fermentation is a process whereby bacteria or yeast break down starches and sugars in foods or beverages. The fermentation process also breaks down food based toxins called lectins. Gluten is also a lectin, and it is significantly broken down in sourdough breads by the yeast. A long fermentation process allows bacteria to break down the carbohydrates and gluten in bread, making it easier to digest and releasing the nutrients within it, allowing our bodies to more easily absorb them. This is why eating a sourdough bread made from ancient grains is not a bad food choice in moderation, if you can find it! Another factor that is an issue with the wheat of today is that the wheat grain has been altered to provide crops that are more resistant to drought and bake more easily. Our stomachs, however, have not adapted as quickly to these changes and we are eating more wheat products now than ever before.
My next point is that you don’t eat gluten by itself. It is part of the complex make-up of a food. Eating some French fries containing gluten compared to eating spelt bread are going to have very different effects on the body because there is so much more to a food to consider that can outweigh the negative effects of gluten when looked at in isolation.
There are many more factors that have changed resulting in an increase in intolerance. Gut dysbiosis, poor digestion, immune imbalances.… These internal factors affect the way that we respond to gluten and because they are so common with so many people for many different reasons relating to our diet, lifestyle and environment-our tolerance to foods containing gluten reduces.
There are many ways we can identify, build tolerance and help address an intolerance to gluten with Nutritional Therapy. The answer is not to avoid it like the plague in this case although of course it is important to reduce our overall intake of it, especially in certain forms. The question we really should be asking is WHY is there an intolerance presenting itself and addressing this rather than just removing it as the only solution.
I am a registered Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist and specialist in Clinical Paediatric Nutrition. If you are interested in starting Nutritional Therapy for yourself, your family or your child then please contact me for more information/FREE discovery call or you can check out my services on my website.