Science Mom: Gluten Is Not A 4-Letter Word

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science mom sharpIf you haven’t had a friend, relative, or acquaintance recommend that you go gluten-free as an all-encompassing cure for headaches, stress, asthma, and/or ingrown toenails, consider yourself lucky. “Gluten-free” has become the watchword for a long-running dietary fad–but what is this gluten stuff, anyway, and why do people think we should avoid it? Here’s the who, what, where, when, and why that you should know about gluten if you’re considering cutting it out of your diet once and for all (or if you just want to know what all the fuss is about).

Where do you find gluten? Gluten is a protein found in certain grains: mainly wheat, but also barley and rye. But because gluten has some useful properties as a stabilizing agent and binder, you’ll find it in a lot of places at the grocery store besides just the bread aisle. Of course the beer aisle is a glut of gluten too, but gluten also turns up in vegetarian meat-replacement products, sausages, sauces and gravy, and even medications and vitamins.

Why do some people really need to avoid gluten? The main reason is a condition called celiac disease. In this disorder, the mere presence of gluten hanging out in the small intestine sends an “ATTACK!” signal to the body’s immune system–and leads it to attack the intestine itself. Over time, the intestinal lining becomes damaged, and damaged intestines are intestines that aren’t very good at absorbing nutrition. The only treatment for celiac disease is to go completely gluten-free; there’s no “cure” and unlike, say, lactose intolerance, there’s no pill you can pop in order to safely binge on bread.

Other people have a wheat allergy that requires them to steer away from all the sorts of foods that would contain gluten. Wheat allergies can be mild enough not to deter a person from eating wheat at all, or they can be bad enough to send you into anaphylactic shock after eating a Saltine.

The number of people who have celiac disease and wheat allergies is a very small one–in the USA, it’s somewhere around 1% of the population. But the percentage of Americans who want to reduce the amount of gluten in their diet is 30%. Some of them have just cut it out of their diet out of a generalized (and not well-supported) sense that gluten=evil; while others are said to suffer from something called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”, which, well, may or may not exist.

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