What’s the deal with gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s what makes bread gooey and pasta chewy. But for some people, an innocent bagel or slice of bread can be a total showstopper.
About 1-2% of the population (an estimated 2 million Americans) has celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition where consuming even a tiny fraction of gluten (think: a Honey I Shrunk the Kids-sized bread crumb) can trigger a full-on attack of the body’s own digestive tissues. With a damaged digestive tract, it’s nearly impossible to absorb nutrients from the foods we eat which, left unchecked, can lead to complications like osteoporosis, infertility, and cancer. Those with celiac disease must completely avoid gluten. Period. Like, no joke.
An additional 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, which could manifest as any symptom under the sun (think: bloating, eczema, brain fog, headaches, sluggishness, etc.) and can be triggered by consuming varying amounts of gluten. Think you may fall in this camp? Read more about it here.
And then there are others who dabble with a gluten-free diet for weight loss or just plain curiosity. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, here’s what it means to say no to the G-word.
Naturally gluten-free foods
If you follow a mostly whole food diet, it can be relatively easy to eat gluten-free. Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts & seeds, dairy products, meat, fish and poultry are all naturally free of gluten. There are also plenty of naturally gluten-free grains like rice (white and brown), corn, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and oats. (A word of caution – oats are often cross-contaminated during growing or processing, so it’s important to find gluten-free varieties.)
Gluten is pretty ubiquitous in processed foods, since it’s often lurking where you’d least expect it like pickles (malt vinegar), soy sauce (wheat), hot dogs (modified food starch), licorice (wheat flour), salad dressing and seasonings. That’s where package labeling can help…
Last summer, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) defined the words “gluten-free” on food labels. (Check it out here.) Now when you see this phrase, it indicates the food contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Why 20 ppm? Assuming you’re eating your recommended daily servings of gluten-free grains, this is well under the amount found to cause sickness in medical studies.
However, the FDA isn’t requiring companies using this phrase to get the testing done, so it’s really more of an honors system. If you’re someone who gets completely wiped out from eating even a tiny fraction of gluten, the honors system ain’t gonna cut it.
That’s where third party certification comes in. There are several certifying bodies that use strict standards like ongoing testing and quality control measures to ensure the purity of a food product. Among the most trusted are the Gluten Free Certification Organization, GFCO, and The Gluten-Free Certification Program.
The benefits of going gluten-free
Is a gluten-free diet healthy? Depends on how you fill the void. If instead of your morning toast, you fill your omelet with more veggies, then you’re ahead of the curve. But take note – just because there are gluten-free waffles and pancakes on the market doesn’t mean they’re healthier, per se. Whole grains provide B vitamins and fiber. Many GF products are made with nutrient-void, refined grain alternatives like white rice and potato starch and laden with sugar and other not-so-healthy fillers. Check the labels, and replace your typical glutinous faves with fruits, veggies and whole grain GF alternatives and your body will be better off.
None of our Nourish Snacks are made with gluten-containing ingredients and most of them have already been Certified Gluten-Free by the Gluten Free Certification Program.
Check out our founder, Joy Bauer’s gluten-free shopping list.