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June 26, 2013

Extension update: Should you be gluten-free?

Live Oak — Until just a couple of years ago, few people had ever heard the term “gluten-free”.  In fact, until 2000, doctors and scientists did not recognize the existence of gluten sensitivity.  Now it seems that every grocery store has a gluten-free section and term is fairly common, but many people do not know what it means and, more importantly, what significance, if any, it has for them.

What Is Gluten and Where Is It Found?  Gluten is the major protein in wheat with special properties that give bread its doughy texture and baked goods their chewiness.  Gluten is also present in rye, barley, and products made with these grains.  These grains are used to make many different foods including cereals, cakes, cookies, pasta, salad dressings, sauces, and more.

Is Gluten Harmful?  Gluten is not harmful to most people.  Only people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease need to avoid gluten-containing foods.  Gluten sensitivity involves an immune system response to gluten similar to that of celiac disease.  The symptoms are similar and include: stomach and intestinal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, skin rashes, headaches, joint pain, leg or arm numbness, anemia and depression. Celiac disease is a  permanent condition and often leads to other serious symptoms such as delayed growth, dental enamel defects, pale sores in the mouth, migraines, and/or weight loss.  Damaged villi in the small intestine make it almost impossible for the body to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, leading to malnourishment and a host of other problems including some cancers, thyroid disease, osteoporosis, infertility and the onset of other autoimmune diseases.  Also, with Celiac disease, because part of the digestive system is damaged, a gluten-free diet must be maintained for a lifetime, while a person suffering from another form of “gluten-sensitivity” may eventually be able to tolerate gluten once again.  Celiac disease may be diagnosed by blood tests and biopsies of the lining of the small intestine.  Both conditions often stem from a genetic component.  Currently there is no medication or surgery to correct or cure these conditions.  The only treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet.

What is a Gluten-Free Diet?  Besides the typical wheat, rye and barley foods mentioned above, gluten has been found in such foods as condiments, beer, soy sauce, broth in soups and bouillon cubes, breadcrumbs and croutons, fried foods, imitation fish, lunch meats and hot dogs, matzo, and most chips and candy.  In addition, gluten may be found in these products: toothpaste, lip gloss, medication, Play Doh, communion wafers, vitamins, licorice, dairy substitutes, seasonings and spice blends, rice and pasta mixes.  Knowing which foods are likely to contain gluten is the first step to avoiding them.

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, contact a physician and registered dietitian before altering your diet.  Following the diet before being tested may cause a false-negative result.  Limited research has shown non-celiac people did show improvement initially when eating a gluten-free diet, but there are concerns about individuals getting sufficient nutrition on a gluten-free diet and gaining weight from overeating, thinking these foods are okay to eat in quantity.  Following a gluten-free diet can also be expensive.  If you are avoiding gluten and don’t need to be, you may be wasting money.

For more information contact Cathy Rogers, cjrogers@ufl.edu 386 362-2771.

UF/IFAS Suwannee County Extension is an equal opportunity institution.

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