Believe it or not, that phrase doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. In this article, we will discuss what gluten is, and what it means to be on a Gluten Free diet. If you are reading this, there is a good chance you, or someone you care about, is considering a Gluten Free diet. First, in order to avoid Gluten, you need to know what it is, and where it is found.
Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in some grains. This protein acts as a binding agent when wheat flour is used for baking. The most well-known source of gluten is wheat. When you make wheat into flour, gluten is created. A majority of baked products are made with wheat because the gluten provides a very nice texture once the flour is cooked. Wheat flour is the basis for many products that are commonplace in the western diet. Other grains contain gluten as well. For example, barley, rye and triticale have gluten. Some oats have gluten, but not all.
Gluten is common in a lot of places. Wheat is a relatively inexpensive food, so it is found in many places where you don’t expect. One big challenge for people that are just learning where to find gluten is that sometimes wheat flour is called different things. If you are cooking for someone who is gluten free and you think something is gluten free you don’t see the word “wheat” on the label, you need to double check (or make sure the product is certified gluten free). Some products may use an alternate name such as the variety of wheat. Some of those are durum, bulgar, semolina, kamut, einkorn, spelt and farro. In the United States, there are FDA labelling requirements for some foods, not others. If FDA labelling is required for a particular food you should either see wheat in the ingredient list, or there will be an allergen list that says “contains wheat.” But, not all foods have to be labelled.
Because many of us grew up thinking of white bread being different than wheat bread, some people may be under the impression that all-purpose flour is not wheat flour and is gluten free. All-purpose flour is merely wheat flour that has been bleached so that it appears lighter. Wheat contains gluten regardless of whether it is in whole grain form, or not.
As mentioned, the term “Gluten Free” has some different meanings to different people. To help you understand what I mean by this, and why, you will need to understand a little bit about why some people opt to live a gluten free lifestyle. Many people that are gluten free have a disease called Celiac Disease. For people who have this auto-immune disorder, eating gluten damages their small intestines. In the short term this causes extreme illness and pain. Even worse, the damage caused by these attacks never goes away. People with Celiac Disease should never eat any gluten at all and they should be eating a true Gluten Free diet.
There are several other reasons that people choose to live a gluten free lifestyle. Some people are sensitive and/or allergic to gluten or wheat. For these people, eating gluten may cause any range of symptoms. Some people may only get an upset stomach, while others may develop hives. Some people may even be at risk of an anaphylactic reaction to wheat – this is a severe allergic reaction that develops quickly that can cause swelling of the airways, and even death if not treated immediately. Other people may just feel better if they avoid gluten. People have reported that they feel more rested and can think more clearly if they don’t eat gluten.
People with Celiac Disease can be so sensitive that merely ingesting foods that have been around gluten can make them ill. These people have to be completely gluten free. They must look for products that are made in facilities that do not use gluten. They often will research entities that certify food as gluten free and then look for foods certified by entities that they trust. Many large companies have started making gluten free products and while some make them in separate facilities, others do not. This means that if you are cooking for someone with Celiac Disease and you are making them a birthday cake you need to be certain that mix (or flour) has not been made in a factory where glutinous flour may be floating around. If the label does not clearly say that there was no gluten in the factory, you will need to look for another brand. In many cases, you may find that many of the gluten free baking mixes in your local grocery store are not labelled this way. Also, you may find that labels change from time to time as companies enter into contracts with different factories, so you will need to look at the label every time to make sure it is still safe. Please note, there are some products that bear labels certifying that they are safe for Celiac Disease, those should be safe. Another example of “Gluten Free” food that may not be gluten free enough for people with Celiac Disease is pizza from certain large chains. Generally, large restaurant chains are going to be diligent about warning you if things were processed in shared facilities, but if you aren’t sure, ask.
Many people who eat a gluten free diet may be a lot less sensitive than people with Celiac Disease. Generally, people who are sensitive or have an allergy to wheat or gluten are usually not so sensitive that by simply preparing something in the same factory with wheat will cause them an issue. Those people should be able to eat anything labelled gluten free without any problems.
Please note, there are several foods that have gluten in them that you would not expect. Wheat is a fairly inexpensive product, and therefore it is not uncommon for wheat to be used as a filler or otherwise used in places you wouldn’t expect, or that you may not be aware of if you don’t cook. If you are avoiding gluten, you should always read any ingredient labels to be safe. Foods that often contain gluten include gravies, sauces, seasoning mixes, pre-seasoned mixes (like rice), etc. People with Celiac Disease may wish to avoid certain cheeses like Blue Cheese, Roquefort and brie which can be made using Rye. Shredded cheeses contain cellulose. Some restaurant chains will even add wheat into things like ground meat.
In conclusion, a true gluten free diet is one with zero gluten with no wheat, rye or other glutinous grains. A truly gluten free diet wouldn’t include any foods processed or grown anywhere where any gluten could get into the food. For most people without Celiac Disease, a Gluten Free diet includes anything made without glutinous grain and can safely include anything accurately labelled as Gluten Free.