Gluten-Free Diets Gaining Popularity

Gluten-free diets gaining popularity

Gluten-free dining has become easier as more choices appear in the marketplace. This is welcomed by people with wheat allergies or celiac disease, an inherited medical condition that affects the way the immune system reacts to gluten.  Gluten is a protein component found in the grains wheat, rye and barley.  In celiac disease, any amount of gluten can trigger a reaction.  This means a lifetime of checking labels, ingredients and the way foods are handled.

It is estimated about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease with many cases undiagnosed.   The increased attention  has put emphasis on screening for celiac disease, a benefit to people with a genetic link to celiac disease or a history of  conditions often labeled as “irritable bowel.” However, increased media and celebrity attention has put “going gluten free” on the list of fad diets.  Giving up gluten may sound like a good idea until you realize the nutrients that can be compromised when you eliminate major grains and the number of foods you may be giving up.   That is why the first step is diagnosis by a medical doctor either for suspected allergy or celiac disease.  Since it is inherited, testing is often recommended even without visible symptoms, mainly gastro-intestinal distress.  There is a simple blood test but in true celiac, biopsy of the intestines is the gold standard.

Once the medical diagnosis is confirmed, the next person to see is a registered dietitian who can help with the label reading, ways to increase the fiber and nutrients you are missing going gluten free, and food selection and preparation. Pharmacists are also important since gluten containing fillers and coatings are used in medications and may be in other health and beauty items.  Although wheat is a recognized allergen that has to be listed on the label, gluten, barley or rye are not required to be identified.  In addition to the more obvious malt (made from barley), there are gluten containing ingredients such as certain “modified starches,” flavorings or caramel coloring.  Add to this the risk of cross contact when a food is processed, packaged or prepared on the same equipment or in an area where there are gluten-containing ingredients. For example, packaging equipment, toasters, knives, mixers, cutting surfaces that have been used for gluten containing foods have to be thoroughly cleaned.  Oats are a good example of a cereal that could be considered gluten free but often has been packaged in the same area of a plant that has wheat products. And yes, there are oats that are handled to be gluten free!

Living gluten free is easier with some qualified help.  Baking gluten free requires more than substituting grains and shopping can be time-consuming and frustrating. In your own home, going gluten free means having separate knives, cutting boards and even a mixer are important. That speck of flour in the housing of a mixer can be enough to cause a reaction if it falls into your gluten free product. A good cookbook and some help from an expert can make it easier.  One place to get help is Giant Eagle, where registered dietitians (RDs) offer guided tours and classes as well as personal counseling and chefs that can help with food ideas.   Looking for foods that are gluten free can be like a search and recovery mission since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (the agency responsible for label standards) has not adopted a uniform standard for what can be labeled as gluten free.  Canada has such a standard, no more than 20 ppm (parts per million), the same recommendation that is pending in the U.S.A.  It’s important to note that some companies and chains, including Giant Eagle, have adopted this standard.  For a Giant Eagle, Nature’s Basket or Market District food to be considered gluten free, it must be certified as having been tested and met the guidelines of less than 20 ppm. This limits risk since all ingredients as well as handling practices are taken into account.  It is expected the FDA will set a standard soon but even then, there will be a lag time before all labels will have to meet the same standards.

In the meantime, the selection and the quality of gluten-free foods is increasing.  It’s possible to find gluten free at favorite restaurants (but make sure their handling is also gluten free).  And it’s easier to pack a lunch, enjoy a gluten-free bagel, or munch on a gluten free pretzel!  Just remember, when you eliminate gluten, you are limiting not only your choice but you’re your potential nutrient sources.  Do it with knowledge and some help from qualified experts. 

Separating fact from fiction is a first step in understanding the gluten free puzzle. Here are some sources –  Giant Eagle –  information, recipes, PDF list of Gluten Free Foods  or  Celiac Sprue Association    National Institutes of Health   Search Celiac:   Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics