Gluten Free, What Does that Mean?

You’ve probably noticed the term “gluten free” on an increasing number of items in your grocery store, from frozen entrees and bakery items, to canned soups, to lunch meats and condiments. Even nationwide restaurant chains are highlighting those of their menu items are gluten free. So what is “gluten,” and why would anyone want or need to eliminate it from their diet? Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found primarily in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is also used as a food additive in a surprisingly broad range of processed items. Unfortunately, some people are unable to properly digest any gluten they consume. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition which makes it impossible to process gluten. Individuals who have celiac disease can do significant damage to their small intestine by eating any food that contains gluten, so they must take great care in their diets.

It’s estimated that at least 1 in 150 people have celiac disease, and it’s thought that far more than that have some degree of sensitivity to gluten. Unfortunately, many individuals are unaware that products containing wheat could be a problem for them. As awareness of the condition continues to grow there will be increasing interest in how to structure a gluten-free diet. The common elements and components of a gluten free diet include:

  • Eliminating all Obvious Sources of Gluten. The most common food ingredient that contains gluten is wheat. This means that any foods or dishes that contain wheat or wheat flour (regardless of whether it’s white or whole wheat flour) need to be eliminated. This means no traditional bread, pasta, cake or pastries.
  • Get in the Habit of Reading Labels. Any food that contains “gluten” in its ingredient list will be excluded from a gluten free diet. But gluten can be added to other foods in various forms. Believe it or not, sometimes the “natural flavors” that are included in many processed foods include gluten.
  • Realign Your Thinking. We often think about gluten in terms of food. But it’s also found in beer, soy sauce, many salad dressings, as well as personal hygiene products such as lip balm and toothpaste. If you only have a mild gluten sensitivity then you might not want to expend the effort to find alternatives to all of these things, but if you have celiac disease you’ll need to realign your thinking and guard against the many hidden sources of gluten throughout the day.

Following a gluten free diet means more than simply removing bread. Because of the prevalence of gluten as a flavoring additive and component of processed food, don’t assume that because you’re ordering that hamburger without a bun you’re going to be served a meal that’s gluten free.