“Gluten-free” is a phrase discussed widely these days. It’s on products, in restaurants, in the news, and at the water cooler. Parents bandy concerns about gluten about like it’s the next attention deficit disorder (ADD), or that it may cause ADD. Other people, especially the types who think ADD itself is bunk, consider “gluten” to be an over-used, worn out buzzword.
Below: This blog is brought to you by gluten free bagels.
What Gluten Isn’t
Gluten isn’t a fad. It’s not a weight loss plan. It’s not a performance enhancement strategy. You might lose weight if you stop eating gluten, and you might feel better, but not because gluten is universally bad for you.
Sensitivity to gluten has received serious attention in the medical community regarding it’s affect on digestion and its potential to affect neurological and skin functioning in adults and children, including disorders labeled as ADHD/ADD, seizures, headaches, and various skin disorders. Gluten sensitivity has been linked to the bone disorder osteomalacia.
None of these linkages and concerns (some validated, others hypothesized) are the result of “junk science” nor were they produced by granola-munching Birkenstock wearers gazing into crystals. There is an abundance of scientific literature regarding immunological reactions to gluten, its genetic foundation, and pathological outcomes. More information regarding symptoms and prevalence continues to emerge.
Gluten sensitivity has been linked to
- Ataxia (muscle tremors)
- Intestinal distress (diarrhea)
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Skin rash / dermatitis herpetiformis
- Osteomalacia (bone softening)
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and certain other grains. It helps to give elasticity to bread, which helps it rise by trapping gases, gives it a pleasing level of chewiness, and which also helps keep it from crumbling apart. Because of this, less well-made breads without gluten are known to be somewhat flat and crumbly.
Because of gluten’s sticky properties and because it is a protein, it is commonly used in vegan meat replacement products.
Below: Field Roast brand imitation meat product uses gluten to help bolster the protein content and provide the same chewiness of meat.
Disagnosis and Measurement
Gluten sensitivity can be measured by the presence of anti-gliadin antibodies, immune proteins which attack gluten. Gluten sensitivity can be predicted via genetic analysis of genes known to be linked to celiac disease. Finally, celiac disease can be verified via intestinal biopsy. These are all measurement techniques referenced as diagnostic tools in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
In one study in Italy, 11 of 3300 children screened positive for celiac disease (.3%) (5). Another study cited a similar figure of 1 in 300 (6). One article seemed to suggest that sensitivity is more prevalent among Caucasians. However, celiac disease is the form of gluten sensitivity marked by intestinal pathology, so forms of GS not involving intestinal pathology could be even more common than currently measured.
“It is now generally believed that subclinical coeliac disease is common in the general population.” (5)
(1) Gluten Ataxia, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 7/15/2007
(3) Effective Detection of Human Leukocyte Antigen Risk Alleles in Celiac Disease Using Tag Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, PLoS One, 5/2008.
(4) Range of Neurologic Disorders in Patients With Celiac Disease, Pediatrics, 2004.
(5) Coeliac disease in the year 2000: exploring the iceberg, Lancet, 1994.
(6) Celiac disease risk in the USA: high prevalence of antiendomysium antibodies in healthy blood donors, Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, 5/1998.