Author: Heidi du Preez
The widely accepted definition of gluten is that it is a protein molecule present in grains, like wheat, rye, barley and to a lesser degree in oats. It comprises 78% of the total protein in modern wheat and binds dough in foods such as bread and other baked goods, contributing to the spongy elastic consistency or ‘a lighter loaf’ in the case of bread.
A variety of adverse reactions to the proteins in cereals are possible. These include allergy and intolerances like celiac disease. The reactions may be mild to life-threatening, short-term to life-long. Gluten and wheat intolerance is common today with many sufferers being totally unaware of their condition. Wheat products can result in digestive disorders, respiratory tract infections, like asthma and allergy rhinitis, or skin conditions, such as eczema and hives in people sensitive to wheat. Most cases of gluten intolerance don’t necessarily manifest as gut symptoms, so people have no idea they’re gluten-intolerant.
Gluten intolerance is usually more severe, resulting in diarrhea or constipation, gastrointestinal bleeding and poor absorption of nutrients, giving rise to many ill conditions like chronic fatigue, inability to concentrate, weight problems, infertility, muscle or joint pain and moodiness or depression. From latest research, it has been estimated that one in three people are gluten intolerant, and that more than 80 percent of us are genetically predisposed to gluten intolerance. Avoidance of wheat and gluten-containing foods is the only treatment. Many allergic or intolerant to wheat or gluten find that they can desensitise their systems by avoiding the specific allergen for at least 6 months, ideally one year. Wheat or gluten could thus be re-introduced into the diet in certain cases. Adhering to a strict wheat- or gluten-free diet is difficult and has social implications, especially in children. It is therefore imperative that a correct diagnosis is being made.
If you are wheat intolerant, you only have to avoid wheat and can still eat other gluten-containing products, but if you are gluten intolerant, you need to exclude all gluten-containing products from your diet. An easy way to remember which grains contain gluten: BROW – barley, rye, oats and wheat. Note that spelt and kamut are non-hybridised varieties of wheat and therefore also contain gluten and should be avoided by those on a gluten-free diet. However, most people intolerant to wheat find that they can tolerate spelt and kamut well.
If you are gluten intolerant, you need to exclude any processed and baked products that could contain gluten, like breads, pasta, cakes, biscuits, pastries, most sauces and soups, and certain canned and processed foods, unless it clearly states on the label that it is ‘gluten-free’. The gluten in oats differs from that found in wheat and most gluten-sensitive people find that they can tolerate oats. However, there is some concern about the contamination of oats with wheat and other grains and they are therefore best avoided by anyone following a strict gluten-free diet. Anyone suffering from coeliac disease should avoid all forms of gluten.
Avoid processed foods, because some manufacturers use flour as a thickening agent or as a cheap filling ingredient, such as in stock cubes, mixed spices, herbs and seasonings, spreads, yoghurt or ice-cream and even supplements. It’s essential to check the labels on all processed foods and avoid any containing the following ingredients: barley, cereal binder, cereal filler, cereal protein, edible starch, modified food starch, malt, rye, rusk, vegetable protein and (wheat) flour. Certain baking powders contain gluten. Beers, lager, ales, stouts and even vinegar may also contain small amounts of gluten. Questionable ingredients are natural flavours, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) or hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), maltodextrin (in most milk alternatives) and mono- and diglycerides that could use starch as a carrier, enzyme or binding agent. Even candy might contain wheat flour, used as a processing aid to prevent sticking to the packaging. If in any doubt, phone the manufacturer.
More and more gluten-free baked products are beginning to appear on supermarket shelves. However, the best and most economical is still to bake your own. Gluten-free grains and flours, pasta and noodles made from potato, maize and rice are available.
Since most of the commercial gluten-free flours are refined, you will need to increase your fibre intake by consuming fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses, lentils and brown rice. Rice bran, psyllium husks or okra can also be added to meals to increase fibre intake. Where possible, use stone-ground flours.
For gluten-free thickening agents, use unbleached corn flour, precooked tapioca, potato, agar-agar, arrowroot, guar or xanthan gum to thicken soups, dressings, sauces and casseroles.
Wheat-free flours include:
- barley, and
- all the gluten-free flours
Gluten-free flours include:
- brown and white rice
- tapioca (cassava)
- pea or chickpea (garbanzo/chana)
- lupin, fava bean
- yellow and white maize meal (corn flour)
- amaranth and
The Wheat / Gluten-Sensitivity Spectrum
The terms sensitivity, allergy, intolerance and celiac disease might become very confusing. They could be defined as follow:
- Sensitivity: A reaction to wheat/gluten due to an unknown or undiagnosed cause; an umbrella term referring to allergy, intolerance and disease. In a sensitive person, eating wheat or gluten will cause distress, but because the cause of sensitivity is unknown, long-term consequences are also unknown.
- Allergy: A response in which the body identifies wheat or gluten as an allergen, producing IgE antibodies and triggering an allergic response. Allergy provokes an immediate response and symptoms are usually experienced short-term.
- Intolerance: An inability to tolerate wheat or gluten, with long-term consequences if wheat or gluten is ingested. Celiac disease is a gluten intolerance, resulting in IgA and IgG antibody responses to gluten. Though, one could be intolerant to gluten without having celiac disease. Symptoms usually appear only a day or two after the food has been ingested and usually has long-term implications.
- Celiac disease: A genetic intolerance to gluten. Long-term consequences, sometimes severe, can result if gluten is ingested. This hereditary disorder of the immune system will lead to damage of the mucosa (lining) of the small intestine if gluten is eaten. This results in malabsorption of nutrients and vitamins. Celiac disease is a life-long condition.
Gluten - What it is & what to avoid,