Is there any word more controversial in the nutritional community than gluten? Gluten is made out to be the evil villain of ingredients pretty often, but what did it do to deserve that? Is gluten really the bad guy that we think it is?
We wanted to understand why gluten is considered the mustache-twirling criminal of our breakfast fairytale, and after some research, we decided to create our Over Easy breakfast bars to be gluten-free. So what’s the deal?
What Is Gluten?
Often, many of the people who have stopped eating gluten don’t even really know what it is. Part of understanding how gluten can impact your body is knowing what gluten is.
Gluten is a protein. It’s a larger, more all-encompassing name for the different proteins that can be found in various wheat products (semolina, triticale, durum, spelt, etc.) as well as rye and barley. Gluten proteins help breads hold their shape by acting as a glue, which works to hold the bonds between the protein together.
The best way to visualize gluten is by thinking about bread dough—the gluten is the part of the dough’s chemical composition that gives it elasticity when you pull it apart. If gluten didn’t exist in that dough, it would simply just rip in two.
There are actually two different proteins in gluten—gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin has been the one that is most directly associated with the negative effects that it can cause, especially in those who have Celiac disease.
It’s important to note that, while up to 30% of people actively avoid eating gluten, a much smaller percentage have been diagnosed with Celiac disease. In fact, only about 1% of the population is thought to have the condition. However, it’s a very challenging disease for doctors to diagnose, as most people don’t even realize that they have it.
Where Can Gluten Be Found?
Gluten can be found in many places, some of which might shock you a little. The three biggest products that contain gluten are those made with wheat, barley, and rye. Here is just a small selection of the mainstream products that may have gluten in them:
- Breads (or anything else with wheat flour)
- Salad dressings
- Malt (like malt vinegar, malted milk, etc.)
- Food coloring
- Brewer’s yeast (so, yes, beer)
- Soy sauce
The worst part about trying to stay away from gluten is that it often appears in some unexpected products, making quitting cold-turkey a harder prospect than you’d expect.
What Is Celiac Disease?
The group of people that is negatively affected the most by gluten are those who have been diagnosed with Celiac disease.
Celiac disease, sometimes called by its more official name of gluten-sensitive enteropathy, isn’t an allergy like most people think it is. Celiac disease is actually an immune system disorder that occurs when someone with the disease ingests something with gluten in it. Your antibodies don’t see gluten as an allergen; they see it as a toxin, and they want to fight it off.
The response starts in the small intestine. For most people, symptoms start with classic GI issues like diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, gas, constipation, and vomiting. Others have more generalized symptoms, including fatigue and weight loss. There are also more rare symptoms that seem to have nothing to do with the GI system, like anemia, mouth ulcers, headache, joint pain, and an itchy rash that can also blister.
Over time, that constant assault on the small intestine can really do some damage. It essentially begins to eat away at the lining on the inside, which means that it has more and more trouble with being able to absorb nutrients. That inevitably leads to malabsorption and increasing severity of GI symptoms.
People with chronic Celiac disease can eventually develop even more serious complications. Osteoporosis (a loss of bone density), thyroid disease, certain intestinal cancers, and diabetes have all been tied very closely to this autoimmune disorder.
Approximately three million people in the United States have Celiac disease. To be diagnosed, there are blood tests as well as intestinal biopsies that will need to be performed, but even with an official diagnosis, there is no cure for Celiac disease. It’s just about management, avoidance of gluten, and focus on a healthier lifestyle and a diet that is easier on the GI system while it heals from the damage that has been done.
Other Issues Related To Gluten
In addition to Celiac disease, there are a few other medical conditions that can be directly tied to ingesting gluten.
As we briefly touched on, there is a rash that people who are either allergic or sensitive to gluten can develop. Known as dermatitis herpetiformis, or DH, this skin rash is another type of autoimmune response that happens in the presence of gluten. The rash is red and very itchy and ultimately results in blisters, bumps, and can become chronic and persistent.
There are also a few reactions that are similar to Celiac disease but not as severe. Both non-celiac gluten sensitivity (also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy or gluten intolerance) and general wheat allergies have many of the same symptoms of Celiac disease without the obvious, severe intestinal damage. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t incredibly uncomfortable, however, as the most frequently complained about side effects include significant bloating and gas.
Basically, problems with gluten sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, so it might be worth trying to dial back for a bit, especially if you’re experiencing any symptoms like these. Who knows—you just might end up feeling a major difference!
Naturally Gluten-Free Foods And Living A Gluten-Free Life
If you’re trying to stay away from gluten, whether you're gluten intolerant or just trying to cut back, you might be worried about where to start. Cutting out gluten from your life can seem like a huge lifestyle change, but it doesn’t have to be a huge thing. More and more brands are embracing creating gluten-free foods that taste just as good as their gluten-filled counterparts (like a certain delicious breakfast bar, perhaps). And if you're really worried, it doesn’t hurt to talk to a dietitian.
Since 2014, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has been in charge of what foods earn their official “gluten-free” label. To be able to be labeled gluten-free, the product must contain no more than 20 parts per million (or ppm) gluten. That makes it much easier to be able to identify gluten-free products so that you can choose safe foods. And there are plenty of options out there when it comes to gluten-free breads, pastas, and more.
In addition, there are plenty of other foods that are naturally free of gluten, which are safe bets if you’re unsure what else you can safely eat on a strict gluten-free diet. Most importantly, focus on getting the nutrients you may lack if you cut out many of the gluten-laden foods. Whole grains, like the ones commonly found in breads and fortified cereals, are full of B complex vitamins, iron, and magnesium. It’s important to have other nutritious sources of those vitamins and minerals.
Oats, especially those that come from organic sources, are an excellent alternative. That’s why we included them in our breakfast bars; they’re healthy, full of fiber and carbohydrates, with none of the gluten. Oh, and they taste good.
Other foods that are naturally gluten-free include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Legumes (chickpeas, peanuts, etc.)
- Brown and red rice
Can Gluten Ever Be Good For You?
For people who aren’t allergic to it or actively trying to avoid it, yes! There are a few benefits that, while not specific to gluten, definitely count in gluten’s pros column.
One of the biggest benefits of gluten is in its use as a prebiotic. While much more of the focus gets put on probiotics, prebiotics are just as important to the human biome. A specific prebiotic carbohydrate can be found in wheat bran, known as arabinoxylan oligosaccharide, that has been shown in studies to stimulate the activity of a certain bacteria in the gut.
Bifidobacteria, which are found in abundance in a healthy gut, are naturally stimulated by that prebiotic. If the levels of bifidobacteria are too low in the gut, certain gastrointestinal diseases are far more likely to develop, things like colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
If you’re not allergic, foods that contain gluten can be a great source of healthy, complex carbohydrates. However, if you feel bloated or uncomfortable after you eat foods that contain gluten, it might be worth trying a gluten-free diet for a few weeks to see if that helps out. You don’t necessarily need to be officially diagnosed to experience the benefits of a gluten-free diet. In addition, many processed foods that have gluten can also be calorie-heavy, so you win in multiple ways.
Gluten isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the possibility that it might trigger a serious immune system reaction may be too much of a risk to take. And why should you take that risk when there are equally tasty, nutritious options out there?
We made sure that our Over Easy breakfast bars were gluten-free because we want everyone to chow down without worry. A healthy, delicious start to the morning should be accessible to everyone, and we promise you won’t miss the gluten!