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Gluten Free – the story behind the hype

What is gluten?

Gluten is a natural binding protein that occurs in many commonly used varieties of grain. As its name suggests, it gives stability and elasticity to dough; without gluten, our cakes and bread would be dry and hard. This is what can sometimes happen when we bake with gluten-free flour, but there are some tips and tricks that we can use to produce soft and fluffy cakes and bread even without gluten.

Differences between gluten and glutamate

When you are first diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, you may get confused by the terms gluten and glutamate. This brief explanation should help. Gluten is present naturally as a natural binding protein in some types of grain. Glutamate, on the other hand, is completely gluten-free – but remains controversial. Glutamate is a flavour enhancer which occurs naturally in tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. However, glutamate is also often produced synthetically and added to spice mixes or ready-to-eat products to artificially strengthen the taste. Scientists have warned that excessive consumption of glutamate should be avoided, as it can cause headaches, rheumatic pain and nausea in some people. 

 

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Foods containing gluten

Gluten is found in foods such as:

  • Wheat
  • Spelt
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Unripe spelt grains
  • Shop-bought oats
  • Pearl barley
  • Wheat semolina
  • Couscous
  • Cereals made from the grains listed above, such as wheat or spelt flakes
  • Traditional breads, bread rolls, pastas and pizzas
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Ice cream cones
  • Biscuits, cereal bars, cakes, tarts and other baked goods
  • Pretzels and other savoury snacks
  • Beer

Gluten-free foods

The following foods are naturally gluten-free, as long as they have not been contaminated with products that contain gluten:

  • Natural fruit and vegetables
  • Natural dairy products
  • Plant-based oils and butter
  • Nuts
  • Pulses
  • Meat and fish
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Pure fruit juice
  • Water
  • Wine, sparkling wine, clear spirits
  • Herbs and spices
  • Sugar, honey, maple syrup, marmalade
  • Carob powder
  • Xanthan gum
  • Psyllium husk
  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Teff
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is the name given to a medically diagnosed intolerance to gluten. According to the German Coeliac Society (DZG), approximately 1 in every 250 people in Germany suffer with this intolerance. However, only a small proportion of these people are aware of the issue. One of the reasons for this is that some people do not experience any of the typical symptoms associated with the disease, such as stomach pains, diarrhoea, constipation, iron deficiency and fatigue, to name a few – so the illness often goes undiscovered.

However, if a person is suffering from coeliac disease, the 'villi' in the small intestine become flat. As a result, the body is unable to absorb nutrients as effectively, and deficiency symptoms will appear. If the affected person continues to eat foods containing gluten, the situation will usually worsen. Once the patient commences a strict gluten-free diet, the villi gradually recover and the symptoms will recede. This process can take up to a year or even longer in some cases.

How can I tell whether a food contains gluten?

As gluten has a multitude of uses in the food industry – for example, to strengthen aromas – it is added to many different foods. Gluten can sometimes be hiding in foods or cosmetics that you would expect to be gluten-free, such as:

  • Pudding
  • Croquettes
  • Ice cream
  • Nut/chocolate spreads
  • Mustard, ketchup
  • Spice mixes
  • Frozen spinach
  • Fruit yoghurts and similar products
  • Chocolate
  • Cream cheese with herbs
  • Vegetable stocks
  • Toothpaste
  • Lip balms

So it is important to always read the ingredients list carefully. Ideally, you should even check the labels on products you know and are used to, because manufacturers often change recipes without notice.

In accordance with Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011, ingredients that could trigger allergies or intolerances must be indicated on the product label. Ingredients that contain gluten also fall under this rule. If, for example, an ingredients list includes 'starch', but does not state 'wheat starch', then you can assume that the starch is gluten-free.

What should I do if I suspect I am gluten-intolerant?

You must see a specialist in internal medicine or a gastroenterologist to obtain a diagnosis of coeliac disease. The first thing the specialist will do is give you a blood test. If the results are positive and show that a gluten intolerance is highly likely, you will then undergo a small intestine biopsy procedure. This is the only way to gain complete clarity in relation to a diagnosis. It also enables the specialist to determine how serious the problem is. If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, it is a good idea to seek advice from a dietician. This will help you gradually learn to adjust your eating habits.

 

Our conclusion on a gluten-free diet

As explained at the start of this article, only persons diagnosed with coeliac disease should follow a strict gluten-free diet. Gluten is harmless for healthy people. In general, you should aim for a healthy and balanced diet and lifestyle. If you suspect that you are intolerant to gluten, contact a specialist.