One of the newer crazes in dietary curbs as of late is the establishment of a totally gluten-free lifestyle. There are even people who are not gluten intolerant that have started adjusting their eating habits toward eliminating this wheat based protein. Some people are altering their diets after self diagnosing an array of unwanted symptoms, while others have been medically advised to cease all gluten consumption due to a serious autoimmune illness called celiac disease. Though celiac disease only affects approximately 1% of the human population, it is estimated that approximately 3 million people are afflicted by adverse symptoms of general gluten intolerance.

Gluten is a protein predominantly found in wheat, rye, and barley. Most cereals, pastas, and breads are made from ingredients that contain gluten. Though gluten can be removed from wheat flour, which produces a wheat starch, not all traces can be completely withdrawn. Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed the allowance of “Gluten-Free” labels to be placed on products that have had most of its gluten removed. Gluten does many things including adding elasticity, making food items such as pizza and bagels chewy. It also helps to hold in gases from fermentation which enables the dough to rise before it is baked. Gluten also ensures the maintenance of proper shape with the help of starch, as one of its properties is to firm when cooked. Gluten also has the ability to absorb liquid, which is why bread is able to soak up broth. This quality is one reason many vegetarians use gluten to make imitation meats. Gluten is a common ingredient found in a plethora of foods, some of which may be unexpected. Some of these include the most common known gluten containing grains: wheat and all of its forms-semolina, spelt, kamut, einkorn, and faro; barley, rye, oat bran, wheat germ, bran, triticale, graham, durum flour, and farina. Other foods may be less apparent: many ice creams, ketchup, flavored potato chips, instant flavored rice mixes, salad dressings, cold cuts, beer, egg substitutes, imitation crab, some herbal teas, licorice and some chocolates, to name a few.

As gluten is in many foods, it also has many different affects on people. Signs of intolerance and celiac disease may be any of the common gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, pain, gas, constipation, and diarrhea. It may also cause weight loss or weight gain, exhaustion, fat in the stool (due to poor digestion), irritability and behavioral changes, aching joints, depression, eczema, headaches, cramps, tingling, numbness, slow infant and child growth, nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption, and even decline in dental health. Since these symptoms can be very severe, and actually cause long-term health issues (especially when malnutrition is involved) if left untreated, it is important to seek the assistance of a physician. To determine whether such reactions are simply gluten intolerance or the more serious celiac disease, blood tests are required, and ultimately a small intestine biopsy will be the final determining factor.

Because of the large number of people switching to gluten free diets, there are numerous companies out there producing many delicious foods for substitute. It is important to be aware that it isn’t mandatory to list gluten as an ingredient if most of it has been removed. Also, though oats are safe naturally, they are often processed in facilities that manufacture other products using wheat and other foods that end up cross contaminating the oats with gluten.

Now that the awareness of gluten has become pretty prominent, there is plenty of opportunity to first determine whether you are one of the potential 3 million Americans who suffer from intolerance; and then create a diet free of the possible trigger. If it turns out that you may be experiencing some of the uncomfortable, often very unpleasant symptoms of gluten intolerance, the dietary change will rid you of them fairly quickly. You will be completely relieved that you took the time to get checked out.