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Gluten-free foods available for people with celiac

It seems that over the last few decades there has been an explosion of food sensitivities ranging from mild to severe, with a spectrum of symptoms from barely noticeable to causing serious illness. Why there is a greater prevalence of food intolerance today compared to fifty years ago is not clear, but it is obvious that those afflicted need help, first in diagnosing which foods are the problem, followed by assistance in finding alternate options. Gluten intolerance is fairly common—and when gluten found in several grains damages the absorptive surface of the small intestine, the condition is called celiac disease. When there is bloating or abdominal pain, fatigue or headaches without intestine damage after ingesting foods with gluten, it is not celiac, but simply a food sensitivity.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) and barley—an important component in bread and other baked goods to help in rising (elasticity) and texture. It should be noted that there is nothing inherently wrong with gluten and should not be avoided by healthy people. It is only a small percentage of the population that is either intolerant to the protein or has full-blown celiac.

When the intestine is damaged, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed so symptoms may be anemia (lack of iron), weight loss, mild to severe fatigue (many vitamins and minerals assist in metabolism), cramps and bloating. The problem is these same symptoms also occur in other diseases so it may take time to diagnose celiac. Until recently physicians relied on clinical signs to suggest a diagnosis, and by the time the presence of celiac was verified, the person was often quite ill. Today, a simple blood-screening test is helping with diagnosis.

Can be controlled

As of today, there is no known cure for celiac disease, but for the most part it can be effectively treated and controlled. The most important tool is a gluten-free diet which, at first, may seem formidable and definitely there are challenges, but once the change has been made, a person with the disease need not feel deprived.

What are some of the challenges of following a gluten-free diet? It is obvious that foods containing gluten—wheat, rye, triticale and barley—must be avoided; this includes most baked goods traditionally made with wheat flour. The problem is there are many “hidden” sources of gluten, so it becomes imperative to read labels. The fact that wheat has a binding or thickening quality means it is used in many processed foods including canned soups, sausage and luncheon meats. A person must also be aware of alternate names for grains found on labels: the presence of wheat, for example, might be listed as bulgur, farina, graham flour, semolina, spelt or durum flour.

That said, there are increasingly more foods available on the market that are “gluten-free” (if in doubt for products such as crackers, French fries, salad dressings, seasoned rice mixes, soups and foods in sauces, look for that designation on the label). Many other grains and flours—including buckwheat, corn and cornmeal, flax, millet, quinoa, rice, soy and tapioca—can be used to produce gluten-free products, including baking mixes for muffins, cakes, brownies, pancakes and breads as well as items such as pasta and cereals. It should be noted that many healthy and delicious foods such as eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans (legumes), fresh meats and fish, and most dairy products are naturally gluten-free.

Very acceptable product

Let's examine one popular food, pasta, to see how it is possible to have a gluten-free counterpart, a very acceptable product that could be enjoyed by the entire family even if only one member has a gluten intolerance. Usually made of durum wheat flour, gluten-free pasta uses flour from grains such as rice, corn or quinoa to make all the varieties of pasta we enjoy such as spaghetti, elbows, shells, fettuccine and lasagna. The nutritional content of gluten-free pasta is similar to that of regular pasta—it is high in carbohydrates, low in fat and cholesterol and contains a moderate amount of protein. Conventional pasta, however, when based on whole grains is a good source of fibre, and is often enriched with key nutrients which the gluten-free variety is missing.

This example points out an important fact: while gluten-free products are a God-sent for those who need them, people without a legitimate gluten sensitivity would do well to continue eating foods based on whole wheat products. Those with celiac disease should make sure they are getting enough iron, fibre, and B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) which are often missing in gluten-free products.