What is Gluten Anyway?

Mary Cornforth Cawood

This article, entitled "What is Gluten Anyway?" comes from Mary Cornforth Cawood at fruitamoms.com.

Two and a half years ago, I discovered I have severe gluten intolerance.

After a lifetime of unexplained chronic illness, it was a huge relief to learn the source of my medical problems. That relief was soon met with frustration when I learned just how tricky going gluten-free could be. The dramatic improvement in my health makes the challenges worth it, but there certainly have been some bumps along the way.

Last summer, my family was out of town at a swim meet for my oldest daughter. Traveling is one of the biggest bumps in the gluten-free world because you have to plan ahead to eat. I thought I had found a place that the kids would tolerate and where I would be able to order something. When the server came to the table, I asked if any of the items on the menu could be prepared gluten-free. Her response was, “What is gluten anyway? Is it butter?” Needless to say, I ended up not ordering anything because I knew there was a strong chance I would be sick if I did.

So what is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in grains including wheat, barley, rye and some oats. Any foods made with these grains contain gluten. For the more than 3 million Americans that suffer from celiac disease, eating foods that contain gluten causes damage to the lining of the small intestine, making it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients from foods. The only cure for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet.

In addition to the millions suffering from celiac, as many as 1 in 30 Americans are estimated to suffer from gluten intolerance. Some can simply avoid food containing gluten. Others have a more severe reaction (similar to celiac), and must not only avoid foods containing gluten, but must also make sure their food is not prepared near gluten-containing foods or processed in a facility that handles gluten ingredients. I happen to fall in the latter category, which can make eating really challenging at times.

However, the more people I meet, the more I hear suffer from some level of gluten intolerance. The medical world is becoming better at diagnosing previously unexplained auto-immune and intestinal problems. My youngest daughter has had two classmates who could not eat gluten; one had celiac and the other was allergic to wheat. Can you imagine how difficult it is for a 6 year-old to navigate the lunchroom and snack-time with food allergies?

I really don’t like to draw attention to my health issue. I certainly do not want my friends and family to go to extra trouble to feed me. I hate to be the one who always determines what restaurant we can eat at. That said, I am fortunate to have some great friends and family who are really good sports about accommodating me. So for all of you out there who may have a friend, family member or classmate who has gluten intolerance, here are some tips on gluten-free eating:

  1. Many foods are naturally gluten free: meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, vegetables, beans, eggs, milk, rice, quinoa, lentils, corn, potatoes, soy, nuts and seeds are all gluten free. There are several tasty gluten-free pastas on the market that are made from rice, quinoa or corn. I have even found some gluten-free pretzels that my girls think taste better than the regular kind!

  2. If the intolerance is severe, or celiac, do not be offended if this person brings their own food or doesn’t sample items from your spread. Cross-contamination is a huge concern, particularly with buffets. If the fruits, vegetables and cheeses on your platters are right next to the crackers, there is a good possibility they have been contaminated. Utensils that have gluten on them can’t be used for gluten-free items. No sharing bread knives, cutting boards, pizza stones, etc.

  3. Gluten is good at hiding in things. Soy sauce, condiments, seasonings, salad dressings, marinades and sauces often have gluten in them. It also lurks in flavored, instant or decaffeinated coffee. Processed lunch and breakfast meat as well as imitation seafood are also culprits. It even hides in some brands of butter and margarine. Any time I see the words “natural flavorings, modified food starch, seasonings, caramel color or malt,” I know to stay away!

  4. Manufacturers and grocery stores are getting better at labeling gluten-free items. General Mills is a leader in this movement. Their cereals and products have a complete ingredient listing and gluten-free items are always labeled. They also have a terrific website called Gluten Freely that has health information, recipes and an online store with lots of gluten-free products. Many grocery store chains have a special label for items that are gluten free so you know they are safe.

  5. What about alcohol? Unless it is a gluten-free variety, beer contains gluten. Distilled alcoholic beverages and vinegars are gluten free. That said, I prefer to play it safe. I steer clear of liquors that are made from wheat, barley and rye. It is a good thing I like wine and margaritas!
  6. Going gluten free has definitely not been easy. I feel like I am no longer just surviving but thriving on a gluten-free diet. I certainly do not recommend this path for everyone; if you suspect you may be suffering from a gluten intolerance, discuss your concerns with your doctor first.

    The increased awareness of gluten sensitivities in the both the medical community and food manufacturers in recent years have made it much easier to diagnose and treat gluten intolerance.

    Mary Cornforth Cawood is a Fruita mom with two daughters. Read her Tuesdays on fruitamoms.com.

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