We hear the word gluten, see adverts for alternative bread, notice increasing supermarket shelf space given over to ‘free from’ items, so what’s it all about?

Gluten (from the Latin for glue) is a protein white-bread-bunsand it is sticky stuff! Most commonly you’ll find it in products made from wheat, barley and rye: bread, pastry, cereals, cakes and biscuits, where its elasticity is useful. It’s also used in many processed foods and imitation meat products and even lipstick.

Does it matter if there’s gluten in your food? Like most nutrition questions the answer is, “it depends”. If you have coeliac disease it matters a lot. This auto-immune condition can be triggered by tiny amounts. Some non-coeliacs are sensitive to gluten and can suffer intestinal distress for days. Certainly gluten is difficult to digest; some doctors think that mankind cannot digest it at all. However, many people don’t seem to react and eat it daily.

The number of people with gluten sensitivity has risen sharply in the last few decades – for good reasons.

  • 1) Our modern diet is very ‘grain based’ so we eat more.
  • 2) Since wheat was re-engineered in the 70s it contains more gluten.
  • 3) Industrial processing has changed. It used to take hours to make a loaf of bread, kneading it and letting it rise and prove twice. Now a steam-injection process turns ingredients into the finished product in 20 minutes so the gluten doesn’t get time to relax.

The solution is avoidance, which used to be a blessing in disguise; there was no choice but to eat real food. But manufacturers don’t like to miss segments of the market so now you can buy a tempting array of gluten-free products. But beware – just being gluten free doesn’t necessarily make a product healthy.

Also check out this article on the mechanism of non-coeliac wheat sensitivity.

Top tip – Know your own body when it comes to gluten.