Gluten and the great grain debate.
I feel I have aged a hundred years writing this particular blog. Sooooooooooooo much has been written about it that at one point I thought it was possibly too unwieldy a subject to broach. But, in the spirit of perseverance, here I am now posting it. Big, fat PHEW.
I hope it simplifies the subject a little for you, and that the format is easy to digest (loving the pun, well done me). Just a reminder, that the thoughts and opinions expressed below are not my own – I have simply researched a gazillion (understatement) articles that have been written on the subject and pulled some of them together to try and give a bit of an overview. All sources are referenced.
A huge variety of cereal crops are grown throughout the world including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice. Grains are the seeds of these cereal plants. They are an ancient food source that has fed populations for centuries.
Whole grains (as opposed to refined grains that have had their bran and germ stripped away through milling) provide a wide array of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and fiber.
But the most common of these whole grains also contain gluten…
What is gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue to hold them together. Picture the chefs in Pizza Express that I find myself staring at mindlessly – the pizza dough’s elasticity is down to the gluten.
Gluten is found in any food that contains the above cereals, including:
most types of bread
certain types of sauces
some types of ready meals
What is the fuss about gluten?
Gluten is a large protein and it’s hard to digest when eaten in large quantites. Humans don’t have the “molecular scissors” to break it down properly in the gut.
So should we all give up gluten?
Nope. Most of us can clear it from the gut without any clinical consequences. “It is entirely possible for the vast majority of people to consume gluten foods on a daily basis and live a full and healthy life. In fact, whole grains are very high in fiber which is essential for good gut function”. Troy Martin, Body Type Nutrition.
Gluten is however toxic to people with coeliac disease, which
is an autoimmune condition (it is not a food allergy or intolerance). This is where the immune system – the body's defence against infection - mistakes substances found inside gluten as a threat to the body and attacks them.
This damages the surface of the small bowel (intestines), disrupting the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food.
Exactly what causes the immune system to act in this way is still not entirely clear, although a combination of a person's genetic make-up and the environment appear to play a part.
It does seem that there is also a middle ground, where people are not suffering from coeliacs but nor do they feel they tolerate gluten well. Approximately 13% of British adults claim to experience symptoms when they eat gluten-containing foods, according to one recent study. “There are non-coeliac patients who are reporting symptoms when they eat gluten. If you look at their gut tissue using a high-magnification microscope, you can see the small bowel is having a very rapid response to it,” says David Sanders, consultant gastroenterologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. “This is not an allergy or coeliac disease, but something is happening to them.”
There is another school of thought, that gluten is in fact being unfairly blamed, and that the culprits of some of these gut issues could instead be Fodmaps.
Fodmaps are also known as “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols” - but I can see that in this instance the abbreviation probably works better. Anyway, these sugars attract water and feed gas-generating bacteria in the small intestine, resulting in bloating, flatulence and loose stools. People with sensitive bowels seem to have worse symptoms. “There’s no doubt that wheat is a major cause of bloating and abdominal problems. The trouble is that wheat has more than just gluten in it,” says Peter Gibson of the Alfred Hospital and Monash University in Melbourne. Although there may be a small subset of non-coeliacs who react to gluten through some as yet undiscovered pathway, he believes that for the vast majority, reducing the fodmap content of their diet could go a long way to easing their symptoms.
Linda Geddes, The Guardian online.
Gluten free diet:
Rather than doing anything dramatic with their diets, one small change a lot of people are making is switching over to sourdough bread which is prepared the old fashioned way, before added gluten and fast-rising yeast became the norm. Apparently a long fermentation process allows bacteria to fully break down the carbohydrates and gluten in bread, making it easier to digest and easier for our bodies to absorb the nutrients within it.
If this isn’t enough and you do want to give up gluten, then Linda Geddes (Guardian) also reports that it’s unlikely to cause you much harm – provided you aren’t solely reliant on manufactured gluten-free products, which can be high in salt or sugar to make up for the palatability that’s lost when gluten is removed.
Sioned Quirke, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, feels a little more strongly:
“It is a massive misconception [that gluten-free products are superior]. I’m seeing an increase of people coming to the clinic saying, ‘I buy this gluten-free bread to help me lose weight’ or ‘it’s better for me’. If you have coeliac disease, then it’s essential that you have gluten-free products, but if you don’t have an intolerance, for the general population, gluten-free products are really not required, nor will they make you lose weight”. She points out the high cost of going gluten-free unnecessarily: “It’s a shame that a lot of people are wasting their money, when they could spend that money more wisely on having more fruit and vegetables.”
So, once again, multiple opinions and varied conclusions.
I’m just massively relieved that the findings in South Park’s gluten-free episode have been found not to be true. How do I know? I checked with my husband…and no body parts are missing.
I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.