The Truth about Gluten


More people than ever before are reporting an intolerance to gluten. Whilst only a fraction of these individuals suffer from Coeliac disease: a rare autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the small intestine; even non-Coeliac disease sufferers claim to experience digestive issues after consuming gluten. Although it is unlikely that more people are developing a gluten sensitivity, the fact remains that the number of people suffering from digestive issues such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea, cramping, constipation and fatigue is increasing.


Gluten is found in most grains and starches including wheat, rye, barley, couscous, spelt, kamut, bulgur and semolina. Common gluten-containing foods include bread, baked goods, condiments, salad dressings, cold cuts, processed cheese, energy bars and ice cream. Additionally, the ingredients Dextrin, fermented grain extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein, modified food starch, yeast extract, natural flavouring, tocopherol/vitamin E, samino peptide complex, brown rice syrup and caramel colouring indicate a presence of gluten. With gluten being present in a huge range of foods, leading a completely gluten-free lifestyle is very difficult. Some individuals report their symptoms subsiding after avoiding bread, however it is likely that other aspects of their diet still contain gluten. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that gluten is the cause of their digestive problems. That being said, there may be other ingredients in bread responsible for their undesirable symptoms. The same principle applies to individuals who report feeling healthier following a strict gluten-free diet. Perhaps it is the evasion of other ingredients in gluten-containing foods that causes their symptoms to subside?

Digestive problems can result from a combination of factors as well as a solitary irritant. This makes identifying intolerances challenging and requires individuals to closely analyse their dietary intake and correlating symptoms. What is clear is that gluten sensitivity, whether justifiably diagnosed or not, has only recently become a significant issue. This indicates that what we eat nowadays differs to past times when digestive problems were less common. The average diet has changed considerably over the past century, with processed food becoming more prevalent and fruit and vegetable intake decreasing dramatically. Mostly, our habits have shifted from cooking from scratch to relying on pre-made and processed foods. We lead busier lives and are forced to depend on supermarkets to provide us with convenient yet healthy options. However, the profit-driven nature of the food industry means many food companies take shortcuts and compromise on the quality and nutritional value of their products.


Not only bread

Bread, one of the most frequently persecuted foods for digestive problems, is one example of a food that is rarely found in the same form as was originally intended. In traditional bread making, fresh and nutritious pesticide-free heirloom grains are milled to make flour which is then incorporated with homemade yeast, water and salt and allowed to ferment and rise for at least 12 hours before baking. The traditional long, slow fermentation of bread that allows parts of the grain to be broken down is now often removed from the industrial process, causing problems for people who have difficulty digesting grains. Approximately 50 years ago, the modern dwarf wheat hybridized, which is the most commonly used flour in modern day bread. Although modern wheat produces a higher yield, making it more profitable, it is less nutritious and also considered to be more inflammatory than ancient varieties of wheat. In addition, modern wheat has been bred to contain more gluten and it is also common for baked goods to contain extra yeast, a known food allergen, as this generates a greater rise and bigger products. Moreover, traditional bread making methods have been replaced with shortcuts involving synthetic food additives and enzymes. In fact, 27 potential allergens have been identified in modern wheat, some of which have been linked to food intolerance symptoms that mirror those of gluten sensitivity and inflammatory bowel disease.

When it comes to typical gluten-containing foods like bread, we have a huge range of products of varying quality available. Although it is still possible to bake and purchase high-quality traditional bread, it is difficult to avoid additives in mass-produced products. Many individuals find their gluten sensitivity symptoms to be inconsistent, as they do not have problems with all gluten-containing foods. In fact, some individuals still report having symptoms after switching to a gluten-free diet. It is therefore more likely that their digestive issues are caused by pesticides and food additives, which are also found in processed gluten-free products. For individuals who are able to eat some types of bread but not others; this could be accounted for by some breads (traditionally baked breads) undergoing a long fermentation and others (industrially produced breads) containing inadequately fermented grains. These individuals may also be more tolerant to some varieties of wheat, usually ancient grains, than others.

Scientific evidence has shown that food intolerance symptoms can arise due to a variety of factors depending on each individual’s digestive system. Possible causes include but are by no means limited to: a lack of fibre, poor food combining, food additives, overeating and psychological factors such as stress (remember that your gut and brain are connected!). With this in mind, if you are suffering from digestive issues; before assuming gluten is the culprit and adopting a gluten-free lifestyle, it would be wise to assess other aspects of your diet first.


+ Words: Yasmin Razzaque

Yasmin Razzaque is a Biochemistry graduate with a keen interest in health and nutrition. She uses her scientific knowledge and ability to critically analyse research to write articles about healthy and sustainable eating and wellbeing.

Instagram: @yasminsophiya