Have you noticed how commonplace gluten-free products have become on our grocery store shelves? Does it seem like everyone and their cousin is now “gluten-free”?
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
First of all, gluten is not a grain – it’s a protein that just so happens to be found in many of them. Gluten is actually a form of several different proteins most commonly found in wheat and it’s grain cousins of barely, rye, kamut, spelt, durum, graham flour and even oats. These proteins (collectively called gluten) create that chewy, gooey, texture that we’ve come to love in baked goods and are freely used as a thickener and stabilizer in many products, such as gravy, salad dressings, soup broth, and much, much more. For a full list of gluten-containing foods, I recommend you visit www.celiac.com.
It’s important to recognize that gluten alone is not bad for your health. However, due to the industrialization of food since world war II, wheat and its gluten-rich relatives have since become”bred” to produce even more gluten then our parents and grandparents digestive systems are used to – for the purpose of making better tasting breads and creating more food stabilizers and thickeners for the food industry. Therefore the grains that contain gluten today far exceed the amount of gluten people even one generation ago were eating – combine that with the sheer volume of gluten-containing products we’re consuming today and you’ve got modern digestive systems seriously stressed. What does this mean? Our digestive systems haven’t caught up with the current food system trends.
Another probable theory (likely true) are that the changes in the composition of our gut bacteria (which are necessary for health and function as the bedrock of our immune systems) may be causing gluten intolerance. Why would changes in our gut flora be changing? A more sterile modern diet (bleached flours, pasteurized foods, refined foods and on and on) is one leading possibility.
Apparently 5-10 percent of all people may suffer from some form of gluten sensitivity. That could mean a wheat allergy or non-celiac sensitivity (digestive disturbance, tiredness, irritability etc after consuming gluten), or those with Celiac Disease.
Celiac disease is the diagnosis given to those who, upon eating anything containing gluten experience an abnormal immune reaction to the gluten protein. This reaction can produce symptoms of hives, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, constipation, iron deficiency, menstrual disorders and in extreme cases infertility and anaphylactic shock which can be life-threatening.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE GUT?
When a person with celiac disease eats food containing gluten (even trace amounts) their immune system reacts by damaging the small finger-like protrusions that line the small intestine called the villi . The villi are critical for life: they permit nutrients to be delivered to our bloodstream. If the villi are damaged or not present, then the person suffers from mal-nutrition regardless of the quantity or quality of food consumed.
The treatment for Celiac disease is to completely avoid gluten 100 percent of the time.
Today there are lab tests that you can request from your family doctor. However, you could also take at least a week off from all gluten-containing products (remember to read those labels, they sneak it in almost everything packaged) and see if you notice a difference in your digestion, mood, and energy levels.
GLUTEN FREE DIETS: CONSUMER BEWARE
One of the pitfalls of gluten-free diets is these foods are often highly processed and devoid of nutrition. Gluten-free certainly does not mean healthy. However in recent years there are more nutritious products and recipes out there thanks to consumer demand.
The most important guideline for living a healthy gluten-free lifestyle – is the same guideline I’d give for living any kind of healthy lifestyle – avoid processed foods!
The biggest concern for those going gluten-free or who NEED to avoid gluten is that they are going to miss bread, pasta and baked goods for special occasions. Thankfully, it’s become fairly commonplace to find decent gluten-free bread, and even gluten-free English Muffins, bagels, waffles, raisin bread and tortilla wraps.
Here on Salt Spring, we have the beautiful Laughing Daughters Bakery, a family run bakery in the South End of the island. They sell their amazing treats at the Saturday Market, TJ Beans, Natureworks, and by now probably a few other places. They make a lovely bread that’s great to toast, cakes, cheese sticks, muffins, cookies, and many more goodies.
In terms of pasta – today on most grocery store shelves you can find lovely gluten-free pastas made from brown rice, quinoa and corn. You’ll have to find your favourite, but most are really great.
My dear friend Amy Phillips lives a gluten-free lifestyle and is well-known for her amazing gluten-free treats! I asked her to offer up some words of wisdom and a recipe for my readers. She says:
Gluten Freedom – “The level of health, comfort and well-being you will feel far outweighs any sadness for “missing out.” If you are going to an event where you know there will be gluten-containing treats, bring a little stash of your own. Don’t assume there will be a dish you can eat, bring snacks for when you attend potlucks – I always make a substantial dish that I know I will be content with if that’s all that’s present for me to enjoy – then if there’s more, it’s a bonus.”
Amy’s Amazing Cookies (quick and easy to prep and bake)
A liquid Sweetener (maple syrup, honey etc)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
A little rice or other gluten-free flour
Pinch of baking powder
Mix and bake at 350 F until lightly golden. Proportions? I make them up depending on my mood and how many cookies I want…”
These are so fantastic! I highly recommend you try them. If you have a favourite gluten-free recipe, I’d love to hear about it. Please post in the comment box below so others can see them too.