“Gluten free” as a health and nutrition label is gaining prominence, but it’s not always clear what gluten free eating means, and whether it is the best choice for everyone.
Gluten is actually a protein composite found in some grains in the grass family. While wheat is the most famous of these grains, it can also be found in barley, spelt, and rye.
Originally discovered by monks in the 7th century, gluten was used as a protein enhancement to their vegetarian diet. Despite the auspicious beginning, today about 1 in 133 people have allergic reactions to gluten. Some of these reactions are debilitating and even life-threatening.
In the United States, approximately 6 percent of the population may be sensitive to gluten, and 1 percent has celiac disease, a sensitivity particular to wheat gluten protein. The numbers of diagnosed sensitivity are on the rise around the world. There is likely a dual reason for this.
First, sophisticated medical testing techniques mean that we are able to identify the sensitivity much more accurately, thus resulting in a rising number of diagnosed sensitivity.
It is also possible that the increase in gluten disorders may be a sign that our bodies simply do not understand how to react to increasing amounts of gluten protein in genetically modified wheat. Modern wheat crops contain up to four times more gluten and twice as many chromosomes than it did before genetic modification was prevalent.
While those with gluten allergies should obviously avoid gluten, how does this increase in gluten affect those who don’t have the sensitivity?
If someone does not have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, it can be a useful form of plant protein. Further, gluten-free products and gluten free eating might not be the healthiest choice for everyone since often processed foods that claim to be gluten free include highly processed sugars, oils and thickening agents that are both unhealthy and can trigger other reactions. Many people who try gluten free eating will also suffer from poor nutrition due to depending on labels rather than eating a balanced diet.
For everyone, the best food choices are built upon a balanced diet free (or minimally inclusively of) of overly processed foods and chemicals. Include plenty of produce and make sure that protein and calcium-rich foods are carefully included.
It’s essential to read labels carefully to avoid trading one potential hazard for another. Remember, just because a label says “gluten free” does not mean the product is healthy; opt for organic when possible and beware of extra fat and sugar often found in gluten free eating choices.
Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any questions. Eat well.