There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who talk about gluten like it's the devil, and those who can't roll their eyes enough to show the world how sick of gluten-free labels they are. Does gluten deserve to be so controversial? Let's dig in.
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG, photos via Shutterstock.
What Is Gluten, Really?
Gluten is the protein in wheat that makes bread dough gooey. At a smaller-than-microscopic level, that protein is actually a network of linked glutenin and gliadin proteins. This is why bread made of wheat has a fluffy texture, while gluten-free breads tend to collapse into crumbs.
You'll find gluten in foods made of wheat, barley, rye or triticale. That includes most breads, cakes and pasta. But there are lesser known sources, such as beer, soy sauce, and any gravy that starts with a roux. If you've ever had seitan, or fake meats such as mock duck, those are nearly pure gluten.
Gluten is not in any fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, water, meat, corn or rice — unless they have had a gluten-containing sauce or component added. So if you eat a gluten-free diet, you may miss bread, but you'll still have plenty to eat. And there are plenty of items with a "gluten free" label that never had gluten in the first place. But the label is helpful to people who want to make sure their soup, for example, wasn't thickened with flour.
Who Has a Legit Problem With Gluten?
There are three groups of people who avoid eating gluten:
- People with coeliac disease. When they eat gluten, their immune system goes haywire and attacks their body. They may suffer from abdominal pain and diarrhoea, skin rashes, fatigue, and nutritional deficiencies because their damaged intestines can't absorb enough nutrients. Eating a gluten-free diet makes their symptoms disappear.
- People who say they are "sensitive" to gluten. These people don't have a coeliac diagnosis, but they seem to feel better when they don't eat gluten. They may have a condition that medicine doesn't yet fully understand, or the gluten could be a red herring and their real problem is something entirely different.
- People who believe that wheat and/or gluten are poisonous to all human beings. Maybe they will avoid gluten as part of a "detox", or they will buy the gluten-free version of something because they get the impression that it's healthier. There isn't really any evidence to back up this claim.
People with a wheat allergy will avoid wheat-containing foods, too, so they may use the "gluten-free" label as a shorthand to find things they can eat. But wheat allergy isn't related to any of the conditions above.
People in the first group unquestionably need to avoid gluten, and people with wheat allergies should certainly avoid wheat. People in the last group don't really need to avoid gluten. And people in the second group, the gluten sensitive folks, are the source of much controversy.
How Rude Should I Be to My Gluten-Free Friend?
My advice to you, as a polite human being, is to be respectful to people whether they eat gluten or not. If they have coeliac or believe they have a gluten sensitivity, questioning them is likely to lead to a long tale of intestinal woes. And if you think they're making it up, so what? If my friend says they don't like olives, I don't argue with them over whether they truly do or don't like olives. I just make sure there will be olive-free options at my next dinner party.
Gluten Sensitivity Is a Myth, Though, Right?
OK, let's talk about that middle group: The people who don't have a coeliac disease diagnosis, but who swear they can't handle gluten.
First of all, they might actually have coeliac. The screening and diagnosis tests for coeliac require you to eat gluten, because if you're not eating it, your body may not have a reaction that will show up on a test. So if you tried cutting gluten out of your diet to see if you feel better, and you do feel better, you're not necessarily going go back into Hell again just to get a diagnosis on paper.
But then there are people who definitely don't have coeliac, but still swear that bread hurts them. One study ruled out gluten as the culprit for the handful of people in the study, but opened up the possibility that these people are actually sensitive to FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols — basically, some weird sugars). There's a lot of overlap between foods with FODMAPs and foods with gluten, so that might explain what's going on. Or perhaps these people are reacting to something else in their food, say a different wheat protein. We don't know yet.
Bottom line, be nice to your friends. Don't try to twist preliminary studies into some kind of excuse to be a dick, like USA Today suggests you do with two questions that can "trick" your gluten-free friends. No. That's not how science works. Or friendship, for that matter.
Why Do People Keep Trying Gluten Free Diets?
So, there's a funny thing about coeliac disease: Most people with the disease don't know they have it. One study that tested nearly 8000 Americans found that 35 had coeliac, but only six of them knew it.
Coeliac is still under-diagnosed. And this may explain the rise of the gluten-free trend: If you've been uncomfortable all your life, and then find that you can feel great by altering your diet, of course you're going to tell everyone about your discovery. For an example, check out the story behind the Gluten-Free Girl blog, which grew out of author Shauna Ahern's coeliac diagnosis in 2005.
It's fine to try a gluten-free diet if you think it might help you. But it's important to remember that "I feel great today" is not the same thing as "I just proved that gluten is my problem". Maybe you're sensitive to FODMAPs, or to something else entirely. Maybe your problem isn't dietary at all, but it comes and goes, and any correlation to your diet is a coincidence. It's important to keep an open mind while you experiment.
Is There Anything Wrong With a Gluten Free Diet?
Just a few caveats. First, gluten-free bread is awful.
Gluten-free cakes and cookies have a similar problem, but often try to make up for their awfulness by adding extra sugar. If you're desperate for a cupcake, they will do. But if you're looking for a healthy snack, a gluten-free cupcake ain't it.
Remember, plenty of foods just don't contain gluten: Meats, vegetables and rice, for example. So you can eat a healthy, gluten-free diet based on these foods without ever buying any starchy, sugary, gluten-free baked goods.