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Gluten: Friend or Foe?

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “Gluten—The New al-Qaeda.” That doesn’t sound good. Then I went to the supermarket and saw a whole aisle that said “Gluten Free.” There was everything from brownies to pizza; the only thing missing was gluten free water. Even if you didn’t know what gluten was, you’d want to avoid it just in case.

bread_grain_picSo what is this stuff that’s so sinister? Gluten is a compound protein contained naturally in a number of fiber rich, grass based grains, especially wheat, barley, rye, and oats. It is also isolated and used as an additive, to enrich some foods with protein. It is what makes dough rise, hold together, and become chewier. There are a few grain-like seeds that do not contain gluten, most notably quinoa and millet. For the vast majority of people gluten is healthy and useful. However, a small but increasing number of people have a sensitivity to gluten, which is actually classified as an intolerance as opposed to an allergy. It can range from mild, almost imperceptible, to life altering, even life threatening full blown celiac disease.

Celiac disease, which is also commonly called sprue, is recognized as a hereditary or genetically determined autoimmune disorder. It usually commences in early childhood and statistically affects women more than men, impacting approximately 1% of the population. It can be mild, or extremely severe, and anything in between. It’s a lousy disease, especially because there is no cure, however, it can be managed very effectively. Celiac disease is the body’s hostile response to gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye products, causing inflammation that damages the small intestine. The more damage that occurs the fewer nutrients are absorbed which potentially gives rise to a laundry list of signs and symptoms that can make life truly miserable. It is basically a condition of slow starvation.

This faulty absorption of nutrients can cause abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, fatigue, muscle wasting, osteoporosis and fractures, hair loss, damaged teeth, infertility, cancer, anxiety, and depression. In fact, The New England Journal of Medicine lists over fifty diseases that can be caused by eating gluten for those that have this condition. Does that sound like a good trade for a couple of cookies, a slice of pizza, or a piece of toast? Besides noting these symptoms, celiac disease can be confirmed through blood tests, endoscopy, and biopsy. Presently, the only effective treatment is a religiously followed 100% gluten free diet for life, supplemented with superior nutrition, vitamins, and minerals. As mentioned, there are those who are gluten intolerant without having full-blown celiac disease, but the recommended treatment is exactly the same.

bread_varieties_grains_picFor those that are sensitive or test positive, there is precious little benefit to eliminating just some gluten as even trace amounts can be damaging to the intestines. So, it’s basically all or nothing if you have the problem. Almost doesn’t hack it. That is actually more difficult than it sounds, because gluten is also hidden in a variety of products, from ketchup to ice cream to salad dressings, and even cosmetics.

In the last 50 years the incidence of celiac disease has increased by 400%; why is that? It appears that it is in direct proportion to the introduction of genetically modified grains, which also alters the gluten content. Of course the best way to deal with this sad fact is to use only USDA organic or Certified Non-GMO foods.

There is a feeling among many that the food industry is taking advantage of the public’s concern over gluten and has generated this into the latest designer disease, peddling high cost gluten-free products to those that have no need. There may be some truth to this charge, so if you have any symptoms or worries, get the blood test and take the guesswork out of it; then you’ll know if gluten is your friend or foe.

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