Gluten-free products are becoming more and more popular. We also seem to meet more people every day who have celiac disease, or are allergic to wheat. Let's separate the facts about gluten from the myths.
Celiac disease is defined as an “autoimmune disease characterized by chronic inflammation of the jejunum caused by exposure to gliadin, a vegetable protein found in some grains.” Gliadin is a component of gluten, which is why products that are gluten-free have become so popular: many supermarkets have opened whole aisles dedicated to these products, restaurants have started to offer special dishes for people with celiac disease and wheat allergies, and health publications all around the world are writing more and more about gluten.
But there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the issue. What is gluten, where is it found, and is it really bad for you? Let's clear up some of the misunderstandings.
The surge of gluten-free products isn't responding to a real need on behalf of consumers, it's just a marketing strategy
Yes and no. Though gluten-free products are certainly a new market for the food industry, there is also a growing number of people with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease who are in need of products they can eat without putting their health at risk. "Gluten intolerance is not something that has appeared suddenly; it's been growing slowly over several generations. Our grandparents began eating processed foods, including more wheat and gluten, and today we're living with the consequences," explains Elsa Lucía Arango, a homeopathic doctor specializing in nutrition. If avoiding gluten is the penalty for having had too much of it in our diet for so many years, we'll have to see how this damage balances out. Gluten-free products are one way of starting this balance.
Gluten intolerance is rare
False. Recent studies have shown that 40 to 50% of the world's population has some level of intolerance to gluten. According to the Colombian Celiac foundation (Fundacion Colombiana de Celíacos), "the number of people who have celiac disease but are undiagnosed is ten times higher than the number of people who are diagnosed." Dr. Arango says that the biggest myth that people maintain is that no one is actually gluten intolerant. "Because the symptoms of intolerance are easily confused with other pathologies, it's difficult to diagnose, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I've seen many cases of people who had digestive problems, skin problems, or even psychological and emotional issues that were greatly improved after the person stopped consuming products containing gluten.
Gluten is only found in wheat and its derivatives
No. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye, but it isn't only found in foods made with these grains. In fact, because gluten is one of the most common additives present in processed foods, it can be found in a wide variety of products including sauces (soybean, tomato, mustard, mayonnaise), cheeses (pecorino, parmesan), preserved foods (capers, olives, tuna, and other foods containing vinegar) and chocolate. It can also be found in cosmetics and medications.
Celiac disease is the same as a wheat allergy
No. Celiac disease is much more serious and permanent than a wheat allergy. While the first is an immune disease that seriously affects the digestive process in the small intestine, the second is a short-lived reaction and does not have significant effects on the body. In celiac disease, the gluten protein causes progressive deterioration of the villi and tissues in the small intestine, the organ in charge of absorbing nutrients from food. This deterioration can lead to malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis, and other problems. In a wheat allergy, the autoimmune system fails to recognize the gluten protein as a food and attacks it. This response can give rise to many different symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, and irritability.
The symptoms of gluten intolerance are similar to those of lactose intolerance
No. In celiac disease, there are oral symptoms, (bad breath, cold sores, inflamed gums), intestinal symptoms (reflux, inflammation, diarrhea, constipation), muscular symptoms (lower back pain, swelling joints), skin symptoms (acne, eczema, reddening scalp, allergies) and emotional symptoms (anxiety, depression, not thinking clearly, irritability). The only similarities are the intestinal symptoms, but these do not occur in everyone who is affected. People who have one or more of these issues frequently, or for prolonged periods, should consider consulting their doctor and asking for a blood test.
Celiac disease can be cured with dietary supplements
No. Currently, the only known treatment with a 100% success rate for celiac disease is to follow a completely gluten-free diet. People with gluten intolerance – and particularly those with celiac disease – should always check the labels of the products they are eating, because even the smallest trace of gluten can cause physical allergic reactions in an intolerant person. A helpful shopping tip is to avoid products whose labels indicate that they contain flavoring, starch, stabilizers, and artificial and natural flavors.
A gluten-free diet is healthy for everyone
It depends. There are many people who have started to eat gluten-free products who don't have any intolerance to gluten or celiac disease. They do it because they are under the impression that gluten-free foods are healthier, and though in many cases they can be, several nutritionists say that a completely gluten-free diet is not necessarily healthier by definition. Though gluten in itself does not have any nutritional benefit, you should take into account that many products that contain gluten are very important sources of nutrients. For example, whole grains, which are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, are also a good source of healthy carbohydrates. People who are not gluten intolerant do not necessarily need to eliminate it from their diet, as there isn't any real benefit to doing so, and they can create a nutritional imbalance.
A gluten-free diet will help you lose weight
Not necessarily. Gluten is used as a stabilizer, a texture modifier and an emulsifying component in hundreds of processed foods. In other words, it is one of the ingredients that gives flavor and texture to many of the foods that we find at the supermarket. To compensate for this absence, gluten-free products contain higher amounts of refined flour, sugar, and fats. Some people switch the basis of foods like pizza, pasta, and cakes, with gluten-free products, thinking that they contain fewer calories, when often they actually contain a lot more. On the other hand, a diet that substitutes processed foods with foods that are naturally gluten free (such as fruit, vegetables, rice, quinoa, or grains) can help to weight loss as this will improve digestion and reduce body inflammation.