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  • Writer's pictureThe Natural Life Shop

To Gluten-Free, Or Not To Gluten-Free?

We often have customers on the shop floor talking to us about their dietary issues. Gluten-free eating comes up so frequently that we thought it would be a good idea to break down some of the facts and fictions surrounding a gluten-free diet for you here.

Also just for the record; we do not promote any diets or eating plans but can fully support you if you are following one for whatever reason.

We'll begin with this; not everyone needs to be gluten-free. Some people are lucky enough to have well-functioning guts, sufficient natural digestive enzymes and a wonderfully robust microbiome. Removing gluten for these people isn't necessary and could remove valuable nutrients and fibre.

For those of us not so naturally well endowed, gluten can pose a greater challenge! Some of the digestive symptoms you may notice with gluten intolerance are:

  • Fatigue

  • Brain fog (forgetfulness, 'woolly' feeling, difficulty following your train of thought)

  • Changes in bowel habits (constipation and/or diarrhoea, swinging between the two & foul-smelling stool)

  • Bloating

  • Pain and/or general discomfort

  • Headaches

  • Anxiety and/or depression

  • Skin reactions (including hives, dryness, flakiness, rashes etc.)

  • Neuropathy (numbness & tingling in the extremities)*

  • Iron-deficiency anaemia*

  • Exacerbation of other conditions**

*usually seen alongside conditions such as Crohn's disease, coeliac disease, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis - occurs because of altered absorption of minerals in these instances

**such as autoimmune conditions - e.g. asthma, eczema, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren's, Hashimoto's thyroiditis and many more. Can also be problematic in histamine intolerance conditions.

The next thing to consider is what grains are left to you if you remove the gluten-containing ones. You still have some great options here, including; quinoa, corn, millet, amaranth, teff, rice, buckwheat (actually nothing at all to do with wheat, it's a pseudo-grain which is actually a grass!) and gluten-free oats.

Yes, oats are naturally gluten-free, however, unless clearly marked as gluten-free, they are likely to have been processed on lines with gluten-containing grains, or grown next door to them in fields, both of which can cause enough cross-contamination to cause problems for people who need to be gluten-free. Also, avenin, the protein molecule in oats, is very similar to gliadin, the gluten protein. So similar, that in sensitive people it can provoke a reaction even when the oats are certified gluten-free. So if you continue to react when you take out gluten but are still eating oats, consider removing them too until you've had a chance to work on some gut repair.

Then we move on to the 'ancient' grains. These aren't gluten-free, but some people with gluten intolerance find they can tolerate them in small quantities as they are a much less processed form of wheat. These include; spelt, Khorasan (Kamut), farro, emmer, einkorn and sorghum(sorghum is a black sheep in this group as it isn’t a form of wheat but a pseudo-grain, similar to buckwheat).

It is now far easier to follow a gluten-free diet than it ever has been. Products are readily available in nearly all supermarkets and no longer just from health food shops or on prescription. It has become cheaper and is now easily accessible for most people.

This doesn't necessarily mean that all gluten-free food is created equal. You will often find that ingredient lists on gluten-free options run more towards paragraph length and, quite often, are filled with things you can barely pronounce. This isn't always problematic if a slice of toast is a rare treat, however, if you live on bread and pasta then these extra ingredients might be causing you more issues. They are often forms of fibre, such as psyllium, which can be a shock to a bowel that was, until recently, arguing with its food. There are often other binders, fillers and preservatives which whilst extending product life, offer no nutritional benefit to you and may not be helpful in your sensitive gut.

It also helps to know that you can find gluten in practically everything that comes in a packet. It's used as a thickener, a flavour stabiliser and for many other things as well. Things to be wary of are packaged and bottled sauces (including soya sauce), crisp flavourings, cakes, biscuits and snacks as well as packaged and sliced meats (wheat can be used in reconstituting some meats before processing and packaging). When you're starting out, it pays dividends to be overly cautious in checking packets!

For coeliac sufferers, it is also necessary to know that medicines, toothpaste and other dental products, body care products and many other things can have gluten derived ingredients which they will need to be wary of, on top of watching out for family members who will put a crumb covered knife back in to the butter or jam...

Also to be wary of fried food options at restaurants, as many use the same fryer for both chips and all their battered and breaded foods. Cross-contamination is rife depending on your level of sensitivity. Even outlets like subway need to be watched for using the same knives on both gluten-free and non-gluten-free foods without cleaning between. If you a newly diagnosed coeliac, things like this can really catch you out!

It is worth considering that many gluten-free options contain egg and corn. Worth noting if your gluten-free person has other allergies and intolerances or is autoimmune (corn can be problematic for some autoimmune sufferers, many do better completely off grains).

You will also find that many gluten-free options are formulated with gluten-free oats. Again, not helpful if you're also reacting to avenin.

If you are baking with gluten-free flours, you will find they are a little thirstier than wheat flour. You can usually add a few spoonfuls of milk, water or a milk substitute to get the required consistency. You may also need a binder depending on your recipe, gluten is what makes flour stretchy and pliable without breaking, so that is lost in gluten-free flours. To get back some of this quality, you can use things like xanthan gum, locust bean gum etc.

As a general rule, we would recommend following a gluten-free diet by including as much fresh food in your diet as possible, minimally processed, fibre rich fruits and vegetables, plant protein sources as well as oily fish and the best quality meat you can budget for. Aim to include your gluten-free grains as they will have all the nutrients you're missing out on from their gluten-containing cousins. You can substitute couscous for quinoa, use a mix of buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa and millet flakes (whatever you find you prefer!) instead of oats, spelt, rye and wheat flakes in muesli, granola and bread recipes.

We have fantastic gluten-free pasta options at the shop going way beyond rice and corn options, a multitude of gluten-free flour options including single grain and blends (we even have a truly marvellous gluten-free bread mix which is so simple to bake and has minimal ingredients!), pizzas, and a great range of gluten-free treats like biscuits and snack bars. If you're just starting out with the gluten-free thing, feel free to pop in and chat to us about the things you can still include and what to look out for!

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