Gluten and the unwary consumer

Much ado about gluten these days. Supermarkets are beginning to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, but is it a  genuine service to customers or a cynical ploy to catch the unwary consumer?

Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grains, including barley, rye, spelt and malts. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and it often gives the final product a chewy texture. Think of a freshly baked baguette. Worldwide, gluten is a source of protein both in foods prepared directly from sources containing it and as an additive to foods otherwise low in protein.

A gluten-free diet is the only medically accepted treatment for celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis (an extremely itchy rash made of bumps and blisters), and wheat allergy. A gluten-free diet might also exclude oats, since medical practitioners are divided on whether they are an allergen to celiac disease sufferers or whether they become tainted in milling facilities. Oats may also be contaminated when grown in rotation if wheat seeds from a previous harvest sprout up the next season in the oat field and are harvested along with the oats.

The term gluten-free generally indicates a harmless level of gluten rather than its complete absence. The exact level at which gluten is harmless for people with celiac disease is uncertain and controversial. A systematic review in 2008 tentatively concluded that consumption of less than 10 mg of gluten per day for celiac disease patients is unlikely to cause abnormalities, although it noted that few reliable studies had been conducted.

Regulation of the description “gluten-free” also varies widely by country. The current Codex Alimentarius – a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety – allows for 20 parts per million of gluten in so-called “gluten-free” foods. Despite its name the Codex is not maintained by one of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commissions, but by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) together with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Gluten-free diets (for reasons other than celiac disease) are trendy. Advertising is persuading people to adopt a gluten-free diet to treat symptoms that are similar to celiac disease but without a positive test for it. Similarly, parents are using a gluten-free diet to treat autism, although it seems that evidence of the diet’s usefulness as a treatment for autism is poor.

If you drop gluten from a diet, it is necessary to add gluten-free whole grains such as brown and wild rice, quinoa and millet to replace lost fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. That goes some way towards explaining the sudden proliferation of ancient grains – quinoa being one of them – and some of the more miraculous health claims being made.

While a gluten-free diet is vital for people with celiac disease, for everyone else the jury is still out. There is also a downside to gluten-free breads, bagels, cookies and snack foods: many have been stripped of their fibre, vitamins and minerals and they often have higher levels of carbohydrates and sodium.

It seems you can’t win.


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