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Wheat-free, Gluten-free – What’s all the fuss about? – Part 1

Have you noticed the new labels popping up on food packaging – WF (wheat free), GF (gluten free) – and wondered what it all means? Many individuals are discovering they are wheat and/or gluten sensitive or intolerant. I will share with you what this means and why there is so much press these days around gluten and a gluten free diet.

Let’s first look at food allergies. Food allergies are reactions to foods that negatively impact our bodies. These reactions can be in the form of a true allergy where the body actually makes antibodies against a specific food. A true allergy can only happen with the proteins found in a food, like a peanut allergy or an egg allergy. What happens much more commonly than a true food allergy, is a food sensitivity. A food sensitivity is not an immune reaction but rather an inflammatory reaction or other negative reaction that occurs in the body when a particular food is consumed. This reaction can be in the digestive system such as loose stool, constipation, excess gas production, heartburn; or in the nervous system such as headache, irritability or hyperactivity in children. Other organ systems can also be affected.

Now let’s talk about gluten and wheat. Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat. Gluten is naturally found in wheat, rye, barley, wheat germ, spelt, kamut and sometimes in oats. It is also added to flour in the bread making process as it gives bread its elasticity and allows it to rise. It is also added to vegetarian and other foods as a source of protein and glueyness – it holds things together.

Gluten is consumed much more than it used to be. Because it holds things together so nicely and adds protein as well as hastening the leavening time of bread dough, it is used a lot! A loaf of wheat bread 100 years ago had 10 times less gluten than it does today. So one of the reasons many people have developed reactions to gluten is from over consumption.

Gluten also has a special reaction in the gut. When someone has celiac disease which is a type of allergic reaction to gluten or gluten intolerance, the digestive tract becomes inflamed when gluten enters the body. This reaction to gluten can take one of two paths: the body tries to clear the “foreign invader” by having diarrhea or loose stools; or the digestive tract shuts down and the result is stomach discomfort and constipation. There are many other symptoms of gluten intolerance but they all stem from this initial reaction.

I find that many people are sensitive to wheat (which may also include spelt and kamut) without being gluten intolerant. In this situation, there is usually a digestive reaction to wheat that does not occur with other gluten containing grains. These individuals may also be able to digest sprouted wheat due to the availability of many enzymes that are present from the sprouting process. Sprouting wheat initiates the digestive process and activates  enzymes thereby assisting the body with digestion of the wheat. Be careful though with commercially available sprouted wheat breads, many companies add gluten to hold those sprouts together!

My next blog with discuss how to test for food allergies including wheat and gluten reactions as well as gluten free, wheat free resources.

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