What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein most notably found in wheat, but also present in a number of other common grains. It permits the flexibility of wheat flour as a baking material. Gluten’s elasticity allows the cells that form in bread, and keep baked goods from crumbling. The elasticity of gluten increases when it is worked and decreases if it is permitted to rest.
Where is it present?
Gluten is present in the following grains: wheat (including spelt and triticale), barley, and rye (including triticale) and almost any foods made therefrom; although oats are not themselves dangerous they are (certainly in the US) contaminated to some degree with wheat and must be, at best, a suspect ingredient. Gluten may be present in many unexpected places. Fermented, undistilled alcoholic beverages made from these grains do contain gluten, as may such seemingly innocuous products as cold cuts, soy sauce, or hard candies. Additionally, many ingredients that are commonly found in processed foods, such as modified food starch, can be made from wheat and therefore contain gluten.
Another place you will find gluten, though not obvious, is in the production of many foods that do not contain wheat or substances in their ingredients. One common example of this are foods that do not contain gluten in their recipe, but the conveyor belts where the food is processed is dusted with flour to prevent sticking. Many “energy bars” fit this description.
There is no other way to know if this is the case by reading the label; you must call the vendor to be sure.
Why Gluten Free?
This diet is necessary for those with Celiac Disease, and can be useful for those suffering from an allergy to one or more of the grains this diet excludes. Some people find that a gluten-free diet is beneficial for children with autism.
It is important to note that Celiac Disease is NOT itself an allergy, but an auto-immune disorder – the body rejects its own digestive proteins used to process gluten and produces antibodies against them. In essence, the body is fighting itself, in the presence of gluten, and doing damage to the small intestine in the process, rejecting gases.
How can gluten be avoided?
Careful and constant reading of ingredients is necessary to purchase truly gluten free foods. If flour (which means “wheat flour” unless otherwise specified), starch (including “modified food starch”, “food starch”), malt, or any grain containing gluten is present, do not purchase the food. Unfortunately for the Celiac it may be necessary to also investigate every step of the handling of the products, due to widespread wheat contamination of certain foods by way of shared equipment, containers, and processing rooms. Finally the utensils, equipment, and surfaces for cooking and eating must be free of accumulations containing gluten, especially ones which have been hardened on by heat, especially in toasters and bakeware.
A gluten-free diet can only be achieved by complete removal of all gluten from your foods, medicines, and any cosmetic products which will accidentally enter the GI tract (in practice, probably all of them); reducing the amount will not be a sufficient treatment.