Many everyday food products contain gluten, such as pasta, bread, and beer. However, gluten is also an ingredient in a variety of less obvious foods.
A significant number of people have an adverse reaction to gluten when they consume it, meaning that they must stick to a gluten-free diet to remain healthy.
This article provides further information on gluten, including why some people should avoid consuming it and which foods contain gluten.
Fast facts on gluten
- Gluten refers to a protein that is present in wheat, rye, and barley.
- It is an ingredient in food products as diverse as salad dressings and beer.
- Cosmetics, medications, and nutritional supplements may also contain gluten.
- Gluten causes damage to the small intestine in people with celiac disease
- Gluten can cause problems for those with or without celiac disease.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the name given to a family of proteins found in all forms of wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. These proteins help bind foods together, maintaining their shape.
Wheat products, such as bread, baked goods, crackers, cereals, and pasta, commonly contain gluten. It is also an ingredient in barley-based products, including malt, food coloring, malt vinegar, and beer.
However, these gluten-containing grains may also occur in other, less obvious foods, such as:
- salad dressings
An individual may need to eat a gluten-free diet for several reasons:
Gluten sensitivity: A person with sensitivity to gluten might experience abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, and fatigue after consuming gluten. Eliminating gluten from the diet may improve these symptoms.
Celiac disease: This is an autoimmune disorder in which an intolerance to gluten can damage the small intestine. This can lead to intestinal damage, poor nutrient absorption, and physical pain, although some people with celiac disease do not have any symptoms.
A person with celiac disease should consume a completely gluten-free diet.
Other people also choose to follow a gluten-free diet for weight loss or a variety of other health reasons.
However, some people who do not have celiac disease or a gluten allergy experience symptoms similar to people with these conditions. This is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
According to the World Journal of Gastroenterology, NCGS may have links to some mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, as well as some autoimmune disorders, such as:
- Hashimoto thyroiditis
- rheumatologic diseases
Those who do not have celiac disease but have other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndromeand eosinophilic esophagitis, may benefit from avoiding gluten.
Recent research also suggests that NCGS might be a disease of the gut that causes an immune response. Other studies indicate that NCGS may have something to do with changes in gut microbiota or might have genetic, environmental, and pathological causes.
Avoiding gluten is important for people with certain sensitivities.
For individuals trying to avoid gluten, checking ingredient labels is essential.
A person can find out whether a product contains wheat by checking the allergy information section on the label.
Products labeled as wheat-free are not necessarily gluten-free. They may still contain spelt, rye, or barley-based ingredients, for example. These all contain gluten.
A law enacted in August 2013 by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes sure that all products labeled gluten-free are safe for individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance to consume.
Some non-food products may also contain hidden sources of gluten in the form of lecithin.
Anyone avoiding gluten should always check the ingredients on the packaging of the following products:
- prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications
- vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements
- lip balm
- other skin and hair products
- toothpaste and mouthwash
- adhesive glue on stamps and envelopes
- modeling dough
Individuals with celiac disease should also avoid foods or products that may have come into contact with gluten.
Cross-contact can frequently occur with:
- cutting boards
- oil used in fried foods
- shared containers
Oats often contain gluten through cross-contamination. Check the labels on the packages for oats that are gluten-free.
Fruit and vegetables are naturally gluten-free.
Many natural foods are safe to consume on a gluten-free diet, including:
- dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- other starches, such as potatoes, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and more
Always check the packaging carefully when buying these products to make sure they do not contain added gluten.
Gluten-free versions of products that would usually contain gluten are also available. The manufacturers of these have replaced specific ingredients to make these foods gluten-free, such as bread, cereals, cookies, or baked goods.
Do not self-diagnose the need for a gluten-free diet.
There must be gluten in the body for a person to receive an accurate diagnosis of celiac disease. This is because gluten produces antibodies in response to ingestion. A doctor can then identify these.
If you suspect that gluten or wheat products are causing irritation or allergies, talk first to your doctor or a registered dietitian.