Should I keep gluten in my diet, or should I remove it? These are questions commonly asked by some of our customers here at Australian NaturalCare. Gluten forms part of most Australians’ diets as it is found in many breads, baked goods, cereals and wholegrains, however it has recently developed a ‘bad reputation’ in the media regarding it’s apparent impact on our overall wellbeing, especially on digestive health.
This blog answers some common questions about gluten, its digestion and who should avoid it.
What is gluten?
Gluten is often thought of as singular compound, however it is actually a term to classify various types of proteins. Gluten proteins are found in a variety of grains like wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a hybrid grain of rye and wheat). The gluten proteins are found in the endosperm of these wholegrains. Not all grains contain gluten though – rice, buckwheat, millet and amaranth grains, just to name a few, are naturally gluten-free.
Certain gluten proteins like glutenin and gliadin are highly elastic which are suited for bread and other baked goods. They help with the water absorption capacity, viscosity and elasticity of dough. Some baked goods actually contain added gluten to increase their strength, rise and shelf life. You can also find gluten powder in health food stores and some supermarkets – not only is it added to baked goods, it is also used in vegan recipes to create meat substitutes.
How can gluten affect digestion?
Dietary protein is broken down by our saliva, the chewing process, our stomach acid and protease enzymes that snip the protein’s amino acid chains so it can pass through the rest of the digestive tract and/or be utilised by the body’s cells.
Gluten proteins get broken down in the same way, except for gliadin. As mentioned above, gliadin is a gluten protein that helps with the rise and elasticity of baked goods. It is however, resistant to breakdown by the protease enzymes, making them a little difficult to digestion and as a result, triggers an inflammatory response in those with a gluten allergy, sensitivity or intolerance, like coeliac disease. For those who do not react to gluten, the gliadin that hasn’t fully broken down simply passes through the digestive tract as waste.
Fun fact: other components of foods we eat aren’t digestible, they too pass through our gut as waste. An example is the cellulose component of celery – it is a source of insoluble fibre that cannot be digested, it gets passed straight through the digestive tract!
You may have heard of the term zonulin – zonulin is a protein that regulates the tight junctions in the small intestine. When zonulin is released it causes the tight junctions to open slightly and allow larger particles to pass through the intestinal wall. Some research suggests that gluten proteins activate zonulin, especially in those with coeliac disease, contributing to what is known as intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut.’ The available evidence is conflicting however, so if you are not a coeliac or do not have a gluten sensitivity/intolerance, consuming gluten should not pose a threat to your digestive health when consumed as part of a balanced diet.
Why do some people feel better coming off gluten?
Do you know someone who has benefited from consuming a gluten-free diet? It is quite common and often, it’s actually not the gluten that is triggering them to feel ill in the first place.
Removing gluten from one’s diet often means removing processed foods – think biscuits, cakes and pastries. These foods are typically high in calories, sugar and unhealthy fats which can, when consumed in excess, contribute to weight gain, inflammation and spikes in blood sugar levels.
Often when people remove gluten-containing foods from their diets, they tend to replace them with more whole foods. They might swap their typical slice of cake at morning tea for a piece of fruit or enjoy veggie sticks instead of buttery wheat crackers with their dip.
Of course, some people who come off gluten do feel better as they may have an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity. This is best diagnosed and supported by a health care professional.
Are gluten-free products healthier?
Although gluten-free products are beneficial for those with a gluten allergy, intolerance and/or sensitivity, they’re not considered any healthier than products that do contain gluten. For example, most gluten-free cakes and muffins contain sugar, raising agents and perhaps even preservatives, colours and flavours like other gluten-containing options do.
Many gluten-free flours used in bread are not fortified like most of the wheat flour is here in Australian bread loaves. This means that swapping over to a gluten-free bread may in fact lower your intake of vitamins and minerals often found in standard, gluten-containing supermarket bread options.
As mentioned above, some people who avoid gluten swap gluten-containing foods with wholefoods. This helps combat the potential for nutritional deficiency. For example, sweet potato can be thinly sliced and toasted to resemble slices of bread and is naturally rich in vitamins A & C, fibre and carbohydrates.
Should I avoid gluten?
Unless you are Coeliac or you have a known gluten sensitivity or intolerance, gluten-containing foods should remain part of a balanced diet. There is no compelling evidence to avoid gluten from a normal, balanced diet.
As mentioned earlier, some gluten-containing foods like cakes, pastries and muffins come with high amounts of sugar and unhealthy fats. While these foods can be enjoyed occasionally, they should not form the majority of your diet. Opt for whole grains like wheat, barley, rye and triticale that are rich in fibre and support digestive health over processed gluten products.
Kubala, J. (2019), Is Gluten Bad For You? A Critical Look, cited on 12.5.2020, accessed <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-gluten-bad>
Wieser, H. (2007), Chemistry of Gluten Proteins, Food Microbiology 24(2): 115-119, accessed from <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0740002006001535>