What is Gluten?

The term gluten free is becoming more and more prevalent in our society. What does this term mean and what does it mean when someone refers to themselves as a celiac?

I can remember taking home economics in high school and being instructed to add water to flour to make it sticky (and bring out the gluten). The more you worked this concoction, the stickier and gooier it became. Eventually, you could stretch it out like an elastic, and it would still hold together.  This stickiness is because of the gluten the flour contains. 

Gluten is a protein found in several grains, including wheat, rye, and barley, and it can be extremely hard to digest.  Oats are safe for some, if they are labeled gluten free, however, most oats are processed on the same equipment as wheat, so one must be careful if one is to consume them. Therefore, for the most part, wheat, rye, barley, and usually oats, cannot be eaten by those eating a gluten free diet. 

Those who must eat gluten free cannot digest gluten.  This, in turn,  can harm the digestive tract, causing a whole host of health problems.  Even the smallest amount can make some people very ill.  For others, the damage being done by gluten in their diet is silent, and it isn't until other health issues occur, that they learn they can no longer eat gluten.

If you’ve been told you are a celiac (someone who cannot digest gluten), or if you are suffering from a myriad of health problems (and have just opted to try a gluten free diet to see if it might help you), then you must eat gluten free.

What types of foods don’t contain gluten?  Well, a few examples would be veggies, fish, meats, fruits, nuts, seeds, and most dairy products. 

What types of foods do contain gluten?  Breads, pastas, baked goods, most deep fried items (as they are breaded), fish sticks, and lunch meats, would all be good examples.  Most food with additives, or those that have been processed, usually contain gluten in some form. 

A gluten free diet does not have to be difficult to follow.  There are many gluten free foods that one can prepare at home and for lunches.  It can, however, be harder, when one wants to pick up fast foods, eat out with friends, or travel. Not all restaurants offer a gluten free menu and it can be difficult to eat without food becoming cross-contaminated with gluten.  As well, restaurant staff don’t often receive much training about gluten free foods and it can be frustrating to find something gluten free to consume.  For example, french fries cannot be fried in the same fryer as say breaded chicken fingers, toast cannot be made in the same toaster as regular bread, croutons cannot be put into a salad, and cutlets cannot be dredged in flour and then fried.  This may seem a bit extreme, but it is extremely important to make sure nothing contains gluten, if one is a celiac.

Gluten free breads, cookies, baking mixes, snacks, and pizza crusts, can all be purchased at most health food stores now.  In addition, gluten free products are now being offered in most grocery stores.  More and more people are learning the impacts this gluten protein is having on their health and they are demanding change.  However, for those living in smaller communities, or in rural areas, gluten free products may be harder to find.  Online shopping and online recipe forums can be a great way to fill your cupboards with healthy options.

Eating is a very social part of our society.  When one cannot join in and have what everyone else is having, it can sometimes be hurtful and/or frustrating.  If you’re preparing a gluten free menu for a celiac, or gluten free friend, think simple, and be prepared to read all ingredients.  As so many things added to our food (MSG, caramel colour, modified food starch, etc.) can contain gluten, it’s best to think “real food” and “no preservatives or additives” in order to avoid the gluten.

Sandwiches and pizza are out (unless you pick up gluten free bread, a gluten free pizza crust, gluten free sauce, gluten free pepperoni, gluten free meat, and cheese to go along with it).  Fruits, veggies, cheeses, rice, real meats (not processed), salads (no croutons) and gluten free dressings are better choices.  Again, think simple.  Dessert might include jello and whip cream, gluten free ice cream, or fruit salad topped with yogurt. Most larger companies are starting to label their products gluten free.  Watch for these labels.  Remember, though, to always read the ingredients, and if you’re unsure about anything a product contains, Google it, or call the manufacturer directly, to confirm whether or not it's gluten free.

Living gluten free can mean living a healthier life, but it also means being extremely careful. Your friend may be thankful that you took the time to prepare a gluten free meal – but don’t be alarmed if they are full of questions before they will actually eat it.  The smallest amount of gluten can do a lot of damage – so they must be assured that you understand and that you’ve researched everything you’re serving.  Sometimes, simply saving the packaging can be the best way to offer that reassurance.

Gluten may be what makes our cakes, and cookies, and breads, so light and fluffy, but for some, it can also be very damaging.  Altough living a gluten free life can be challenging, it can also bring years of health and vitality.