Food

Answers to the 7 Big Questions Everyone Asks About Gluten

With so much hype and confusion swirling around, here are the key facts.

These days, it seems almost easier to find false “information” about gluten than the truth. Gluten-free is trendy, and it’s no longer strange to find restaurant menus dotted with “GF” logos next to various items like “polenta lasagna” that have been tweaked to remove any trace of wheat.

Recently, Jimmy Kimmel made fun of people who follow gluten-free diets by asking pedestrians if they were gluten-free and, if so, what is gluten. And…they had no idea. Some people even believe that wheat nowadays is genetically engineered (it isn’t). And with so much hype and confusion swirling around, others believe that anyone who says they can’t have gluten is making it up. So here are some facts about wheat and gluten you should know.

1. What Is It?

What we call “gluten” is made of two separate proteins, gliadin and glutenin, found in wheat and other related grains (barley, rye and triticale). When water is added, they combine to form gluten, a stretchy, elastic molecule that gives bread its wonderful consistency.

You can often find alternative forms of wheat in natural food stores, like einkorn wheat, emmer, spelt, or kamut. Sometimes people who cannot tolerate most wheat can tolerate these other forms of it, but not always.

2. Is It Genetically Engineered?

Much has been made about human tinkering with wheat DNA, yet so far, commercial wheats are not genetically engineered. This might change in the future – just give Monsanto more time – but so far, there is no genetically engineered wheat legally on the market in the U.S.

The rumors that wheat is genetically engineered likely stem from two sources. First, from the ancient breeding that gave us modern wheat. Einkorn and emmer were two of the first forms of cultivated wheat. Einkorn is a diploid, meaning that it has two complete sets of chromosomes (one from the mother and one from the father), just like humans do.

Then, wheat got weird. Emmer and durum wheat are each tetraploid, with four complete sets of chromosomes. And spelt and common bread wheat are hexaploid, with six complete sets of chromosomes. This occurred without any genetic engineering, thousands of years ago.

Humans can’t survive with extra sets of chromosomes, but plants can. It’s still a bit odd, but it’s actually somewhat common in the plant world. Strawberries can have eight sets of chromosomes, and marijuana aficionados found they could increase THC content by tricking the plant into growing with extra sets of chromosomes in it. Still, some marketers are using wheat’s extra set of chromosomes as a reason to condemn it.

The extra chromosomes showed up in wheat long before modern science and plant breeding came along. More recently, scientists spent the 20th century fiddling with wheat to see if they could improve yield, disease resistance and other traits, including its ease of use in commercial kitchens.

The idea that modern breeding led to the increase in gluten intolerance has been promoted by books like Wheat Belly by William Davis. And in fact, a 2010 study compared the amount of specific gluten epitope (the part of the antigen recognized by the immune system) known to cause trouble for people with celiac disease in modern wheat and traditional wheat varieties (landraces). Overall, the gluten epitope was more present in modern varieties than traditional ones.

Still, changing wheat varieties is only one potential cause in the increase in gluten intolerance. We also live in a time with increases in all kinds of auto-immune diseases, including many that are entirely unrelated to gluten, like peanut allergies or asthma. Some scientists suspect the increase in auto-immune diseases actually stem from our lack of exposure to common allergens in the first few years of life. A recent study found that children exposed to cockroach droppings and cat and mouse dander as infants had lower rates of wheezing at age three.

In short: maybe it’s not all wheat’s fault.

3. What is Celiac Disease?

For celiac sufferers like Deanna Askin and Laura Clawson, the health consequences of eating gluten are real and severe. Before her diagnosis, Askin’s symptoms parallel what you’d expect for a celiac sufferer who consumes gluten regularly.

“I think starting around in high school I started having all sorts of digestive problems and breathing problems,” Askin recalls. “I was tired all the time. I couldn't make it through class without falling asleep. I was hungry all the time, I was always starving.”

Her doctors gave her several diagnoses, like acid reflux, but nothing helped. “It started getting worse and worse. I started getting cold sores, like real bad, taking up half my face. I was so tired and I got diagnosed with narcolepsy by a sleep clinic. I would fall asleep driving to and from work. I felt bloated all the time and my skin felt hard, like expanded but hard.”

Then, at 21, she had a blood test to check for celiac and it came out positive. Today, as long as she eats a gluten-free diet, she feels fine. But when she consumes even just a little bit of gluten by accident, she suffers for weeks. “It's just so many odd random symptoms that it's hard to even remember them all until you get them all again at once,” she says as she lists several of them, like horrible stomach pains. “I'm really hungry and then I go and eat and it hurts. I'm really fatigued and tired and feel really weak.”

Laura Clawson’s symptoms were much different. She suffered from anxiety and depression, and she “got every single cold and flu that was going around to the max.” About six months after she gave up gluten, she says, “I had this moment where I was walking down the street and realized, I’m kind of happy all the time. What’s going on here?” If she accidentally eats a little bit of gluten again, she relapses into anxiety.

4. Does Anyone Else Besides Celiac Sufferers Need to Go Gluten Free?

In short, yes. Tricia Thompson, a registered dietitian, provides information on her website about various categories of gluten-free people. Aside from those with celiac disease or wheat allergies, there is another catch-all category referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This refers to people who do not have a food allergy to wheat or an auto-immune disease related to gluten, but still suffer symptoms like diarrhea when exposed to gluten.

Natasha Chart went gluten-free after a long problem with migraine headaches that began in her teens. In her 20s, the migraines grew even more common, and her doctors were unable to help. Finally, an alternative health provider recommended an elimination diet, a common tactic to identify one’s migraine trigger. All migraine patients have one or more triggers, whether it’s a food, a smell, or lack of sleep, that sets off their headaches. Removing foods from your diet and adding them back in one at a time is a way to identify food triggers. That’s how Chart discovered that gluten and soy were her problems.

That said, not everyone who says they can’t eat gluten suffers so severely. Some are told by chiropractors or other alternative health practitioners that they cannot eat gluten after undergoing tests using a practice called “applied kinesiology” that is little more than quackery. Others go gluten-free because it’s the latest fad diet.

It’s nice to respect your friends’ wishes when serving them food, but it’s important to know which category they fall into, since gluten restrictions differ if you’ve got celiac compared to if you’re just jumping on the gluten-free band wagon because it sounds like a good idea.

5. Is It Really That Serious or Is It In Their Heads?

The gluten-free crowd is notorious for its strict adherence to avoiding even just a few molecules of gluten. For those with celiac, even the tiniest bit of gluten is a serious matter.

When Askin was first diagnosed with celiac, her doctor told her to avoid bread and pasta, and she did – but continued to be sick. It took her a year or two to learn which foods contained gluten, since oats are typically contaminated, and brewer’s yeast can have gluten, and it can pop up in other strange places.  

This month, she got sick after eating out, because her gluten-free meal was fried in the same oil as food containing gluten. She only had a few bites before the kitchen realized the mistake, but it made her sick all the same.

“People don't understand the consequences of it,” says Askin. “They think it's just a trendy diet. And every time they are careless it has such a huge effect. I have to take off work because I'm too tired, and I have to go to the doctor, and I spend $40 in supplements. Plus it has a correlation with lymphoma and esophageal cancer because it takes a big toll on your body. My lymph nodes swell up like crazy."

Askin obviously has an extreme need to avoid gluten, as do all celiac sufferers. Those who are trying out a gluten-free diet because it’s a trend might not. If you are cooking for a friend who is gluten-free, be sure to ask about her needs. Some, like Askin, cannot eat gluten-free hummus after someone else dips a pita chip (made of wheat) in it. That’s too much contamination for her already. But others might be okay with that, as long as they avoid the pita chips.

6. Which Foods Contain Gluten?

Tricia Thompson has a list of gluten-containing foods on her website. At its core, being gluten-free means avoiding wheat, barley, rye, malt, brewer's yeast, and in most cases, oats. She also offers articles about foods of concern. Beer, unless it’s gluten-free, is out, because it’s made with barley. Soy sauce is out, because it’s typically made with wheat or barley. The gluten-free alternative is tamari, but make sure to read the label just in case.

Now that so many foods are advertised as gluten-free, Thompson launched a site called Gluten Free Watchdog to test products that claim to be gluten-free to see if they really are.

7. Should I Go Gluten Free? 

If you are worried whether you are suffering from a wheat allergy, celiac disease, or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the first place to go is to your doctor. Your doctor can perform a blood test to check for celiac, and might also suggest an intestinal biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. It’s also possible to try eliminating gluten from your diet on your own, to see if you notice any changes in your health, but then you won’t have an official diagnosis and the guidance from your doctor that would come with it.

Gluten-free living is not for everyone. It’s not like trans-fat, where the entire world would be better off without it. If you aren’t allergic or sensitive to gluten, then keep enjoying crusty sourdough breads, pizza, cookies, and all of the other glutinous goodies the world has to offer.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."