The "gluten-free" fad
The health and wellness trend is playing a major role in shaping our food industry. Recently, the “gluten-free” fad had captured consumer’s attention. Within the next four years, the gluten-free market value is expected to rise by 2.1 billion dollars, reflecting its prospective growth in popularity. This trend doesn’t seem to be dying down any time soon. So, what makes gluten free products so special and should we hop on this new health trend too?
What is gluten? Gluten is the catch-all name for multiple storage proteins, such as gliadin and glutenin, found in wheat grains. These proteins are heat stable and can therefore be used in baking to help bind mixtures together to create a homogenous product. This property provides use in both baked goods and processed foods to improve texture, moisture retention, and flavor. While these properties demonstrate benefits behind gluten containing foods, they fail to address the greater impact gluten has on our body.
The food we eat plays an important role in the way our body expresses various genes. For example, fruits and vegetables contain various antioxidants and nutrients used in enzymatic reactions to reduce inflammation and even activate tumor suppressor genes. On the contrary, processed foods can contribute to increased inflammation and stress within the body, potentially negatively altering DNA expression. Essentially, as our body breaks food down into its core components, molecules are absorbed, transported, and specifically utilized to drive physiological mechanisms.
The specific proteins found in gluten happen to be highly resistant to protease degradation in the gastrointestinal tract. This resistance prevents full degradation of a protein into its constituent amino acids, ultimately creating various peptide structures that effect absorption. For some people, these proteins can still be absorbed into the body but for others, with a gluten sensitivity or allergy, the inability to completely digest these molecules can lead to an immune response. When our body doesn’t recognize a molecule, it triggers the production of antibodies to attack the foreign material and protect the body. When our body doesn’t recognize gluten, it attacks it and the associated enzyme tissue transglutaminase (tTG), responsible for breaking down gluten into its amino acid constituents. As the tTG’s are attacked, certain anatomical structures in your intestines responsible for nutrient absorption are destroyed. This increases inflammation and alters the way food is processed, ultimately leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, constipation, malnutrition, and even depression.
The destruction of the gut lining can also cause leaky gut syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by changes to tight junctions found between epithelial cells. Tight junctions normally contribute to the protective barrier of the intestinal wall. When these structures are disrupted, toxins, bacteria, and even your gut’s own antibodies can more readily enter blood stream, ultimately leading to systemic consequences. The freedom of toxins and tTG antibodies to translocate throughout the body elicits an auto-immune response and can lead to the self-destruction of other important tissue. Over time, systemic inflammation presents itself as joint pain, brain fog, or extreme fatigue.
As previously mentioned, the prevalence and severity of symptoms associated with a gluten sensitivity varies between individuals. Patient’s with auto-immune diseases, such as Celiac disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, often present positive for certain inflammatory markers. A lack of inflammatory markers doesn’t completely rule out gluten as the cause of gastrointestinal and systemic symptoms. Certain people test negative for tTG antibodies, yet still experience a relief of symptoms after eliminating gluten from their diet.
Ultimately, each of us carry our own unique genetic code and with that, our own unique response to various foods, environments, and disease. If you experience fatigue, brain fog, depression, joint pain, or any digestive problems, removing gluten from your diet may provide you with relief. Keep in mind that it can take up to a few months to fully experience relief.
The most common grains that contain gluten are what, rye, barley, and oats. It is important to be careful when selecting foods because this protein is found in the ingredient list of multiple products. We often don’t pay attention to this and the result is an average gluten intake of 5-20 g/day in western culture. Gluten is abundant in many of our diets. Due to this, it’s important to maintain proper nutrient consumption when going gluten-free, as many common foods that contain gluten are fortified with iron, B vitamins, folate, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals. These nutrients can be found in leafy green vegetables or supplemented to prevent nutrient deficiency.
B.S. Biochemistry, Exercise Physiology
University of Miami