What is Gluten, Anyway?

The skinny on going gluten-free

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Foods with a "gluten-free" claim are a big—and growing—business these days. And everywhere you turn, it seems another celebrity is touting the benefits of his or her new gluten-free diet. All of a sudden, gluten appears to be public enemy No. 1. But if you've watched this whirlwind of gluten-free activity unfold without fully understanding what, in fact, gluten actually is, fear not. You're probably not alone.

Gluten is shorthand for a family of storage proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. The gluten proteins are found in the mature seed of these cereal grasses, which is what we refer to as the grain. Close relatives of wheat, such as spelt, triticale, kamut, farro, and einkorn, also contain gluten and must be avoided on a gluten-free diet. While you may hear the term "gluten" used to refer to rice (e.g., glutinous rice), rice protein is not actually a gluten and need not be avoided on a gluten-free diet. Conversely, while oats don't technically contain gluten, they're almost always cross-contaminated with wheat gluten due to processing methods in this country. As a result, unless an oat-containing product is specifically labeled "gluten-free," one should assume it contains gluten.

Since gluten is a storage protein found in cereal grass seeds, it's not found in the young, green grasses that sprout from these seeds. For this reason, wheatgrass and barley grass are technically gluten-free. However, to ensure that wheatgrass or barley grass juices are safe to consume on a gluten-free diet, you need to make sure that no seeds accidentally make their way into the juicer.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate the use of the claim "gluten-free" on consumer products, proposed legislation would mandate that products labeled "gluten-free" must be tested to ensure that they contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, a threshold under which current testing methods are unable to detect the presence of gluten (and a level under which no adverse reactions appear to be triggered in those with Celiac disease). Currently, numerous grain-free products that are inherently gluten-free—from hummus to dried fruit—are carrying a gluten-free claim, presumably as a marketing tactic to make them appear healthier than competitive items. According to the FDA's proposed guidelines, this practice would be outlawed.

While there are segments of people who must avoid eating gluten due to adverse reactions, gluten is not an inherent "toxin" as many would have us believe. People with an immune-mediated wheat allergy and those with Celiac disease must follow a strict gluten-free diet, as gluten triggers harmful reactions. Others who have tested negative for wheat allergy or Celiac disease but still find that eating wheat causes unpleasant side effects may have a non-immune gluten intolerance or a wheat/gluten sensitivity. Those who experience gas and bloating in particular after eating wheat may actually be reacting to a form of carbohydrate in the wheat called fructans, rather than the gluten protein itself. For these latter groups, avoiding wheat and gluten may alleviate uncomfortable side effects; however, eating wheat/gluten does not cause damage to their cells nor trigger dangerous allergic reactions. For everyone else, gluten is just one of many food proteins encountered in the course of a mixed diet, neither detrimental nor essential to good health.

In other words, if you tolerate gluten and enjoy it, there's no compelling reason to avoid it. If you don't tolerate it or just prefer not to eat it, there's no compelling reason for you to keep it in your diet (other than, perhaps, convenience). Many people find that cutting out gluten helps them avoid the temptation of the numerous empty-calorie, high-glycemic, processed snack foods that they want to eliminate. Others, however, find that cutting out gluten only to replace it with gluten-free versions of these same empty-calorie, high-glycemic, processed snack foods is of no benefit for weight loss, energy levels, or improved health. (Foods with a high-glycemic index release sugar quickly into the bloodstream, causing a quick spike in energy that's followed by a dramatic dip in blood sugar levels. This dip leads to hunger relatively soon after eating.) A "gluten-free" claim is by no means an indication that a food is more natural, healthful, or lower in calories.

If you're following a gluten-free diet, either by necessity or choice, your best bet is to choose minimally-processed foods that are naturally gluten-free. Gluten-free oats, brown or wild rice, millet, buckwheat (kasha), and quinoa are nutritious, high-fiber whole grains that can replace wheat-based staples like pasta, wheat bran, couscous, bread, and cereal on a gluten-free diet. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, and the flours made from them are important, nutritious staples in a gluten-free pantry, as are nuts and nut flours. And, as is the case in any healthy diet, loads of fruits and vegetables make sure your gluten-free diet delivers essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. If you're willing to think outside the (bread) box, a gluten-free lifestyle can add a surprising amount of diversity to your diet, and may not feel like a restriction at all!

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.