I see more and more foods labeled “gluten-free.” What exactly is gluten, anyway? And why don’t people want it?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It’s also in spelt, a type of wheat, as well as triticale, a cross between wheat and rye.
Gluten isn’t just any protein, though. It’s a very large molecule formed by a long chain of amino acids, and it’s what provides elasticity to bread dough. So, obviously, a lot of people actually do want it.
But some people -- estimates say one in every 133 people, in fact -- have trouble digesting this particular protein.
The condition, called celiac disease, varies in its severity, but some people have so much trouble that the villi (small finger-like structures) lining the small intestine are damaged or destroyed. Villi are tiny but vital -- they absorb nutrients. Without them, a person can become malnourished no matter how much nutritious food they consume.
According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), part of the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of celiac disease vary widely from person to person. Some have no symptoms at all. Children and infants are more likely to experience digestive symptoms, such as abdominal bloating and pain; chronic diarrhea; vomiting; constipation; pale, foul-smelling or fatty stools; and weight loss. Adults with celiac disease are more likely to experience iron-deficiency anemia (unexplained by other causes); fatigue; bone or joint pain; arthritis; bone loss or osteoporosis; depression or anxiety; tingling numbness in the hands or feet; seizures; missed menstrual periods; infertility or recurrent miscarriage; canker sores; or dermatitis herptiformis (an itchy skin rash).
As you might imagine, following a gluten-free diet isn’t as easy as avoiding bread, crackers, cereal and baked goods. Many processed foods may contain wheat, barley or rye, too, including bouillon cubes, candy, potato chips, cold cuts, french fries, rice mixes, sauces, self-basting turkey, soups, and vegetables in sauce among others. Many of those items are also produced gluten-free, but they aren’t always easy to find -- hence the labels you’re seeing.
The NDDIC has detailed information about celiac disease and offers a list of organizations and their websites for even more information. To get started, see NDDIC’s site at http://tinyurl.com/celiacinfo.
Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: This column was reviewed by Amber Riggin, a dietetic intern with Ohio State University Extension’s Community Nutrition Programs.