“Gluten free” is a term that has become more commonplace in the last few years. But, what does it mean? Well, gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains, like wheat, barley and rye. Being “gluten free” means eliminating all foods that contain those ingredients or derivatives of them. Some people choose to cut out gluten because they feel better when they don’t eat products that contain it. Some people have a wheat allergy, while others suffer from a gluten intolerance, often categorized as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Adopting a gluten free diet has been found to be beneficial for those people with these types of sensitivities, but for people diagnosed with Celiac disease, cutting out gluten from their diet is absolutely necessary.
The exact number of people living with Celiac Disease is unknown, but the estimation is currently 1 in 100 people. Often it takes years to get an accurate diagnosis, which is why experts believe that only twenty percent of people with Celiac Disease are currently diagnosed. What makes Celiac Disease so much more strict about the gluten protein is the damage it does to the intestines. Many people understand Celiac Disease to be somewhat of an allergy to the gluten protein, but it is actually an autoimmune disorder that can lead to intestinal damage and potentially more serious complications if left untreated. Currently the only way to heal from the gluten damage is to completely cut out gluten containing foods. The amount of gluten it takes to cause damage to a person with Celiac Disease is smaller than a crumb, so in addition to not eating food containing gluten, Celiac warriors have to be hyper aware of the chance of cross contamination with other foods that contain or have been processed in a facility with those grains.
Some of the gluten containing foods are more recognized than others, like pasta, bread, cookies and cakes. Others, though, are not as obvious. Gluten can be hidden in seasonings, dressings, foods with added flavoring as well as breading on meats and in gravies. The only way to really learn and know what packaged foods contain gluten is to read the packaging labels. In most cases, the only way to be sure is to check the ingredient list on everything before you buy it. Fortunately, with the passing of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, in 2014, all foods regulated by the FDA are required to list common allergens in the ingredient list. This will most often disclose wheat, however rye and barley may not always appear, so knowing what ingredients contain gluten is always helpful when picking products.
Don’t worry, though, it isn’t always such hard work! Most whole foods, meats, cheeses and vegetables are naturally gluten free unless they have some added flavoring. Also, packaged foods that have been certified gluten free per FDA and independent company testing are often labeled as such with a GF prominently displayed. As a matter of fact, research published in a report by Food Business News indicates that sales of Gluten Free products has increased on average of 36% per year between 2010 and 2015, and food manufacturers are taking notice, and adding more and more gluten free options to their normal offerings.