These days, it seems every second person is on a gluten-free diet. More than a trend, it’s become quite mainstream in the past few years. But what is gluten exactly and why doesn’t it sit well with some people? Let’s find out…
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat (including spelt), rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). It makes dough more elastic, and helps it to rise and keep its shape. Think of it as a kind of glue that holds food together, and gives it a chewy texture.
Where is gluten found?
Gluten can be found in many common foods – and some are surprising. These are the types of foods that often contain gluten:
- Breads and baked goods
All products prepared with gluten-based flours, such as croissants, pita, bagels, muffins, doughnuts, pie crusts and cookies
Barley, oats, porridge, wheat bran, corn and rice cereals
- Baking products
Malt extract, icing sugar, some baking powders, food colouring products
- Pasta and noodles
All pastas, gnocchi, dumplings, couscous, hokkien noodles, soba noodles, ramen
- Savoury and sweet products
Confectionary, flavoured potato and corn chips, liquorice, pretzels, crackers
- Meat products
Sausages, processed meats, meat pies, frozen meals, battered meats, canned soups
- Dairy products
Malted milk, some ice creams
Salad dressings, soy and tomato sauces, gravy, yeast extract (including Vegemite), some relishes, malt vinegar
Beer, lager, ale, Guinness
Why do people follow gluten-free diets?
There are a couple of reasons. In Australia, about one in 100 people have celiac disease, meaning they’re gluten-intolerant. Their immune systems have an abnormal reaction to breaking down gluten, so eating it causes inflammation in the small intestine and leads to digestive issues (like diarrhoea) and even small bowel damage.
If only a small percentage of people are actually intolerant, why are thousands of people ‘off gluten’?
Well, these people have what is called ‘non celiac gluten sensitivity’. Basically, they don’t feel great after consuming it. They may experience some of the same ill effects that celiacs do, like bloating, fatigue and joint pain, but it doesn’t go so far as to damage their intestines.
What are the gluten-free alternatives?
While the list above looks huge, there are plenty of natural and commercially made gluten-free products on the market, including breads, baking mixtures, biscuits and muesli bars.
Luckily, there’s an Australian Food Standard for processed foods, so look out for the ‘gluten-free’ tag on ingredient labels, as well as the Crossed Grain endorsement logo.
The gluten-free foods those with sensitivities can enjoy include:
- Bread alternatives: Rice crackers, corn cakes, corn tortillas
- Cereals: Amaranth, arrowroot, millet, psyllium, quinoa
- Fruits and vegetables: Fresh, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, nuts
- Meat products: Fresh, unprocessed meats, like fish, chicken and ham off the bone
- Baking products: Corn flour, coconut flour, lentil flour, soya flour, rice flour, rice bran, buckwheat, millet, amaranth
- Pastas and noodles: Rice and mung bean noodles, buckwheat noodles, quinoa pasta, rice vermicelli
- Condiments: Tahini, tamari, honey, maple syrup, vinegar
- Alcohol: Gluten-free beer, spirits, liqueurs
Before you stock up, always read the label, because like GMOs, gluten has a way of sneaking into foods you’d never expect.
The verdict on gluten
Like with any diet, education is key. You know your body better than anyone else ever will. If you suspect you may have an intolerance or sensitivity, get checked out by your GP and steer clear of foods containing gluten. If you’re restricting gluten in an effort to be healthier, just remember to maintain a balanced diet. Many gluten-free foods can be nutritionally deficient, so it’s important to make sure you’re eating well and fuelling your body to perform at its best.
Does gluten affect the way you eat in any way?