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Over the last few years the range – and amount – of “free from” foods has grown massively, with “gluten free” products leading the way. No longer the preserve of those with digestive issues, many people are switching to “gluten free” products believing them to be a healthier option. However, as so often is the case, there’s much more to the gluten issue than first appears. 
So, this week, we’re going to take a closer look at gluten as well as dispelling a few myths and mis understandings along the way. 
What is gluten and why can it be a problem? 
Gluten is a protein made up of glutenin and gliadin molecules. While it’s found in largest amounts in wheat, it’s also present in many other cereals too including barley, oats, rye and spelt although in much smaller amounts. 
It gives wheat based foods a light, springy consistency. Without it, baked foods such as cakes and bread lose their elasticity becoming denser, drier and more crumbly. 
Over the last few decades, wheat has been bred – no pun intended (!) – to maximise the amount of gluten it contains to provide the light fluffy bread and cakes we’re so familiar with. While this may have improved their “mouth feel”, this has not made them more nutritious or digestible. Sadly, quite the reverse. 
When combined with water, gluten becomes sticky and elastic. If you ever mixed flour and water together as a child to make paste for various craft related projects, you’ll known exactly what we’re talking about! 
However, it’s this stickiness that causes all the problems. As it passes through the Digestive System, gluten rich foods stick to the cells lining the inside of the wall. Not only does this affect the digestive process itself, but also the absorption of nutrients from the Digestive System into the blood stream. 
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Gluten also “irritates” the cells lining the Digestive System, causing inflammation and damage to the cells themselves, allowing substances that should remain in the Digestive System to “leak” into the blood stream. In other words, it can lead on to Leaky Gut. This, in turn, triggers an immune response as these substances circulate in the blood stream around the body. 
With all of this going on, we’re often asked why gluten problems aren’t spotted more easily. The answer is simple, although not very helpful. That signs of a potential problem are very general. Easily overlooked or attributed to something else: 
• Bloating 
• Abdominal discomfort or pain 
• Fatigue 
• A general feeling of being unwell or “under the weather” 
• Headaches or a toxic feeling after eating a wheat based snack or meal 
• Nausea 
• Diarrhoea 
Added to this, it can be difficult to link the foods eaten with the onset of symptoms. This is partly because of their already mentioned generality but, increasingly, due to the amount of processed foods being eaten and it not being clear whether or not they contain wheat or gluten as an ingredient. 
While some are easily spotted, such as bread, cereals, pasta and biscuits, others are not. For example, sausages, along with many other processed meats, seasoning mixes and sauces. And here is one that often trips people up, stock cubes and bouillon which use wheat / gluten as a thickening agent. 
Even if the label is carefully read – and understood (!) – many people simply don’t realise that wheat / gluten may also be found in: 
• Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein (HVP) 
• Texturised Vegetable Protein (TVP) 
• Malt 
• Starches 
• Some natural flavourings 
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many people opt for the simpler option, choosing products labelled “gluten free.” Let someone else do the work for them. Unfortunately, in doing so they rarely stop to ask whether the food is actually “gluten free” and what happens to it to earn this label. In other words, the processing involved to make it “gluten free” and the impact this has on the food itself. Sadly, making a product “gluten free” involves a lot of processing which, in turn, affects the quality and nutritional content of the food. And, not, in a positive way either. 
While people don’t want to hear it, “gluten free” food is highly processed and much less nutritious than its counterpart. Which, by a strange twist of fate, also makes it less easy to digest so exacerbating the problem. Finally, cross contamination with other foods being produced in the same factory is common, along with ingredients being included that aren’t “gluten free” at all. A simple solution turns out to be the exact opposite! 
So, what’s the answer? 
Well, there are no prizes for guessing what it is. First and most important is to take a close look at what you’re eating and how it’s being prepared. And, “yes” we know you won’t want to! Many people simply don’t realise how much wheat they’re eating, with it being found in every meal – and snack – each day. It’s something we’re talked about before and our post can be found here
Whether or not you suspect you may have an issue with wheat / gluten, cutting down the amount you eat will have many health benefits. Wheat is not a food our bodies need or find easy to digest and by reducing it you’ll also cut the amount of sugar, salt and fat eaten too, all of which are mainstays of the modern diet. 
Then, as you start to make changes to your diet, notice how you’re feeling. Have some / all of the general symptoms of a problem improved or cleared? 
Make fresh fruit, vegetables and salad the mainstay of every meal with small amounts of protein and fats. Enjoy cooking your own meals at home, not only do they taste better and provide better nutrition, but you’ll know exactly what you’re eating too. 
Good health isn’t complicated, it’s just a case of taking responsibility for your own health rather than relying on others and quick fixes. 
As always, the choice is yours. 
Picture by unknown author 
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