Cast your eye over any Free From options on a menu, or the supermarket shelves, and it’s likely you’ll see gluten-free alternatives high on the top of the list.
From bloating to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), skin complaints to weight gain, when it comes to shining a light on the foods that may cause us to feel unwell, gluten often gets the blame. But are we being too quick to judge?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten helps foods to maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. These grains are used in many common dishes, processed foods and other ingredients, such as:
- Breads and other baked goods
- Soups and sauces, such as roux
- Pasta and cereals
- Salad dressings
- Malt (malted barley flour, malted milk and milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavouring, malt vinegar)
- Food colouring
- Beer and brewer’s yeast
- rye bread, such as pumpernickel
- rye beer
Where else can you find gluten?
Because flours are often used as thickeners, or to bulk out other ingredients, you can often find sources of gluten in some rather unusual places.
You may find that your favourite sausages and hotdogs contain wheat and gluten. It’s also common to find gluten listed as a potential allergen on crisp packets, stock cubes and gravy granules.
Pickles and other fermented foods that use malt vinegar should be avoided if you struggle with gluten, as well as soy sauce.
Are gluten intolerance and coeliac disease the same?
There are a lot of misconceptions around why people avoid gluten. Many people assume that gluten automatically causes bloating, so they avoid it which could do more harm than good when it comes to maintaining a balanced diet.
For around 1% of the population, gluten must be avoided due to a condition known as Coeliac Disease. This autoimmune disorder causes genetically susceptible individuals to negatively respond to gluten. Over time, as gluten triggers immune responses, the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged. Without a diagnosis and the right treatment, it is likely that those with Coeliac disease will suffer from malabsorption, the inability for the small intestine to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.
Coeliac disease isn’t a condition you can grow out of, but the symptoms can be managed by removing gluten from the diet entirely.
Far more common is gluten intolerance – a sensitivity to gluten that can develop at any time during your life. Rather than an allergy, which can be instantaneous and life threatening, intolerances usually involve a delayed reaction, which can make the culprit difficult to identify.
The common symptoms of both Coeliac disease, and food intolerance are very similar, including:
- Weight loss
- Bloating and gas
- Abdominal pains
If you are concerned that you might have Coeliac disease, your GP can test you. But for food intolerances, which are far more common, unfortunately testing is not yet available through the NHS.
What are the signs of a food intolerance?
Food intolerances can occur when your body’s immune system mistakes a food protein as a threat, releasing antibodies to fight it. This reaction can cause inflammation, leading to a host of complaints such as headaches, brain fog, skin conditions like eczema or acne, or joint pain. IBS and bloating are particularly common complaints.
It’s estimated that around 45% of the UK population has some kind of food intolerance. Often, they go undetected for years, causing mild, but persistent and frustrating problems that stop you from feeling your best.
While it might seem like gluten is lurking around every corner, you have a lot more choice than you might assume. Sticking to whole, unprocessed foods is generally the best option as you can prepare recipes from scratch and have complete control over what goes into your meals.
When cooking and baking, to replace the flours that contain gluten, look out for:
- Brown, white and wild rice
- Almond meal flour
- Coconut flour
- Corn starch.
- Guar gum
When we’re pushed for time, or simply don’t feel like cooking, we want to be able to grab convenient foods on the go.
Thankfully, there’s an ever-increasing range of branded and supermarket-own versions of breads, pastas, cereals, cakes and ready meals now available.
Watch out for ‘wheat free’
You might assume that if you’re avoiding gluten, wheat free products are safe, but that isn’t the case. Gluten isn’t exclusively found in wheat – you can find it in other grains such as spelt, barley, and rye, so it’s important to check labels carefully.
Take control of your diet
Getting to the bottom of a food intolerance can be frustrating. A common recommendation is the elimination diet, where you remove one food at a time for a few weeks to see how you feel. But this process can take a long time. And, although many of us commonly react to a few different ingredients, the elimination diet is often abandoned when the first trigger food is found, leaving an incomplete picture of what’s causing the problem.
Get answers faster with Smartblood
When it comes to food intolerance testing, it’s important to do your research and choose a reputable laboratory testing company.
At Smartblood, we offer a comprehensive test to help you take control of your diet quickly and discover your own trigger foods.
Our home-to-laboratory service gives you fast, accurate results that pinpoint exactly which foods you are reacting to. Tests are completed in our accredited laboratory by trained experts, with clear, easy to understand results sent to you via email within three days.
Dedicated nutritional support
Importantly, our tests include a telephone consultation with our BANT registered Nutritional Therapist. This additional support is there to help you understand your results and put a plan together to make safe, sustainable changes to optimise your diet.