Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Eating Well
Learning to be gluten-free
Jessica Kovarik, RD, LD, Extension
Associate, University of Missouri Extension
Gluten-free is a term appearing on food labels, being mentioned in health articles and you may have even heard your family and friends talking about gluten. However many consumers may not know what gluten is or why finding a gluten-free product is so important for some shoppers.
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye and barley. Oats may also have gluten due to cross-contamination, which means they have come into contact with gluten during processing. When baking, gluten helps give structure, texture and strength to baked foods, such as bread.
Most people can eat gluten, but for some people, gluten causes their small intestine to become damaged. When damaged, the small intestine, which is part of the gut, has a hard time getting nutrients out of food into the body. When nutrients can’t get into the body, a person can become malnourished.
This reaction to gluten is a genetic disorder called gluten-sensitive enteropathy, celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Gluten intolerance is a genetic disorder with symptoms that can be different from person to person and may be the same as symptoms of other health problems. Some symptoms include weakness, appetite loss, weight loss, chronic diarrhea, abdominal cramping, bloating, muscle cramps and joint pain. Because gluten intolerance symptoms are like many other health problems, diagnosis of gluten intolerance may be hard and in some cases can take many years. A person of any age can develop gluten intolerance, however the disease is usually diagnosed in the adult years, about ten years after symptoms first appear.
The only treatment is lifelong avoidance of gluten. Once gluten is taken out of a person’s diet the small intestine can begin to heal, symptoms disappear and nutrients can once again get into the body.
Because gluten is found in wheat, rye, barely and sometimes oats, a person with gluten intolerance should avoid these grains and products which contain them. In addition, foods that might come into contact with these grains or gluten should also not be consumed.
If you are looking for gluten-free foods, start by reading the ingredient list on a food label to determine if the product is gluten-free, or made without gluten. Identifying gluten-free products involves more than just looking for the words wheat, rye, barley, oats or buckwheat in the ingredient list. Wheat may also be called durum, farina or semolina; gluten can also be found in buckwheat, additives, seasonings and flavorings. And a food originally gluten-free may come into contact with equipment gluten is on or may be processed in an area that also contains gluten.
Since a food label may not be able to tell you if a product has gluten in it, looking for the phrase gluten-free is very important. If you see the words gluten-free, then you know the product should not contain gluten. Another way to make sure a product is gluten-free is to contact the manufacturer. Some grocery stores also may have signs, gluten-free lists and in-store dietitians to help you with gluten-free shopping.
There are also national and local support groups anyone can join to learn more about gluten-free shopping, eating and living. Some of these groups also provide gluten-free lists and recipes. If there isn’t a support group in your area, consider starting your own.
Keep in mind that lists and signs do not take the place of reading a food label. Always double check to be sure a product is gluten-free, even if that means calling the company.
Finding gluten-free foods may seem like an impossible task, but once you know what to look for, shopping can become a breeze.
For more information check out the following celiac support groups:
- Celiac Sprue Association at www.csaceliacs.org
- Celiac Sprue Research Foundation at http://www.celiac.com/
Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009