Gluten – why all the fuss

Considering we’ve been enjoying wheat since the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago the sudden explosion in gluten-sensitivity may be a little confusing. Gluten-free products are everywhere; restaurateurs are modifying menus; and the wave of ‘clean eating’ cookery books, blogs and baking is showing little sign of waning.

So what actually is gluten?

Gluten is a protein present in most grains, including wheat, barley, rye, spelt, couscous and bulger. It has a ‘glue like’ consistency which is difficult to digest. Since the agricultural revolution more than 25,000 strains of wheat have been developed and over the last 500years the gluten content of foods containing wheat has increased.

The timeline

The end of the 19th Century saw the invention of commercial yeast. Rather than relying on a multi-strain bacteria, lactic acid and Co2 to make bread rise a single strain of yeast was developed accelerating the fermentation process and masking the beneficial effects of lactic acid. Lactic acid helped break down gluten making it less ‘sticky’ and easier to digest. The 1960’s saw wheat production on a mass scale. To ensure wheat was commercial it needed to be robust so a crop was engineered containing higher levels of gluten. More recently the food industry has changed the solubility of gluten so that it can be added to foods without impairing the flavour. The downside is that this franken-gluten can be more problematic.

Key takeaways

A recent study found that everyone had intestinal permeability when eating gluten, whereby undigested gluten damages the lining of the intestine. Thankfully, the cells inside our intestines regenerate every three-five days meaning for many, damage can be repaired and gluten doesn’t pose a problem. The prevalence of none-coeliac-glutensensitivity is estimated to be six-ten times higher than coeliac disease and for every one person that develops a digestive complaint following gluten there are eight who are affected elsewhere in the body, including the brain, thyroid and musculoskeletal system.

However, like with most things, we all have our individual tipping points and may go on to develop sensitivity. We especially become vulnerable when we’ve been under any form of stress. If you’re curious to find out if you’d benefit from going gluten-free, eliminating all gluten from your diet for 30 days should see an improvement in any symptoms, in those with true sensitivity, and improve general well-being. The current tests examine a single gluten protein, when in reality wheat is made up of around a 100 different components that might pose a problem, meaning people are fallingthrough the cracks.

The real controversy

In clinical practice, the real controversy is approaching the G-word. People just don’t want to give it up and will cherry pick dietary advice to suit their lifestyle. I get it. I grew up in Cornwall and was never far away from a cream tea and a pasty. But thankfully the gluten-free market is improving and there are some more than palatable alternatives out there. If giving up the grain completely is too tough just now, try replacing your normal loaf with more traditional grains such as spelt, emmer or sprouted grains. If you do have true gluten sensitivity these won’t be tolerated but may protect against any tipping point in those that don’t.

Finally, give your digestive system some time out by following a few wheat free days a week. Be prepared to get savvy with scanning ingredient lists – the stuff is everywhere!


References

Article by Allison Sheppard – a registered naturopath. To find out more about Gluten sensitivity head over to: www.naturopathyforliving.co.uk

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