An estimated one in 150 people cannot eat gluten because they are severely allergic. That’s four times more than 50 years ago. Why? No-one knows. Some researchers believe it has something to do with how wheat is processed… The term gluten comes from the Latin word for “glue.” It stays true to its origins as this is what gives bread dough its elasticity. Gluten also traps gasses that make bread rise and give cake that smooth texture.
Gluten is found in the following cereal grains:
• All wheat: bread wheat, durum wheat, kamut wheat, spelt wheat
• Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)
All these cereal grains are omnipresent in our meals. They are made into flour that we use to bake bread, cakes and pastries. We convert them into starch to thicken sauces and soups. We grind wheat into semolina for pasta and couscous. We use barley to produce malt and then beer. And a good smoked meat sandwich would not be the same without some rye bread!
Though, theoretically, oats do not contain any gluten, this cereal grain is still the subject of considerable controversy. That’s due in large part to the fact that is almost impossible to find pure, uncontaminated oats on the market. The Canadian Celiac Association does endorse a 100% pure brand of oats, Cream Hill Estates, in small amounts: 60 ml (1/4 cup) of dry rolled oats per day for children and 125 to 180 ml (1/2 to 3/4 cup) for adults.
The “gluten-free” trend and self-diagnosis
A new phenomenon is now making the rounds: some people with digestive problems are following a friend’s advice to eliminate gluten from their diet. It is not a good idea to proclaim you are allergic to gluten without consulting a doctor. On one hand, eliminating gluten distorts the screening test and affects the medical diagnosis. On the other hand, this severely restrictive diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies if not followed properly.
Also called celiac disease, gluten allergy is a permanent and complex autoimmune disease. It surfaces as an allergic reaction to the gluten contained in many cereal grains. The presence of gluten is treated as a toxic substance in the immune systems of people who are genetically predisposed. It causes progressively harmful effects:
Damage to the inner wall of the small intestine caused by a localized inflammatory reaction
Malabsorption of certain nutrients: iron, folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, protein and fat
In children: anemia, growth retardation, bone fragility
In adults: cancer of the small intestine, anemia, infertility, osteoporosis, other autoimmune diseases (e.g. psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis)
How do I know if I am allergic to gluten?
Celiac disease can strike at any age, especially in children, but more and more among adults 30 to 60 years of age. It often goes unnoticed… Among symptoms to watch out for: fatigue, anemia, bloating, constipation, weight loss, irritability and chronic diarrhea. Beware! The presence of one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean it is celiac disease, but can be related to lactose intolerance or an irritable colon, for example. In order to detect an allergy to gluten, a blood test is needed to identify specific antibodies. If the test is positive, a small intestinal biopsy is required to confirm the diagnosis.
Is there a special diet to follow?
Absolutely! The only way to quickly eliminate all symptoms of celiac disease and prevent complications is to remove all traces of gluten from the diet forever. Fortunately, many cereal products, such as flour, bread or pasta, are now available in a “gluten-free” version in grocery stores or specialty stores. A person suffering from celiac disease now has a more interesting and diverse range of options to choose from than in the past.
Cheating from time to time?
It may be tempting to succumb to the urge for a croissant here or a small slice of pizza there… Even small amounts of gluten can be damaging, though not to the naked eye. Why? Gluten causes damage every time it comes into contact with the intestinal wall. This results in a serious risk of malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies. After completing eliminating gluten from the diet, it can take up to two years for the intestine’s damaged lining to regenerate. Banning gluten for life does not stop you from dining out in restaurants or travelling around the world, as long as you know the alternatives and follow a strict diet.
Practical guide to avoid gluten
AT THE GROCERY STORE: Flour and starch are very volatile and can be easily contaminated. Buy them from a supplier who sells only gluten-free products (e.g. Glutino, El Peto, Enjoy Life, Gluten-Free Pantry…).
Avoid buying nuts and other food in bulk, even if they are organic.
Buy whole spices and grind them as needed or buy those that are gluten-free. Beware of powdered spices (ground pepper, cinnamon, onion powder, etc.), as they sometimes contain wheat starch to increase the volume, without being listed on the label. A new regulation on allergens will rectify this situation.
Read the list of ingredients on processed foods, such as canned meats, sausages and cold cuts, sauces, dressings or frozen foods, because they may contain gluten. Even store-bought broth may contain gluten.
AT THE PHARMACY: The coating of some supplements and medication may contain gluten. Ask your pharmacist.
Choose gluten-free toothpaste.
Beware of natural and homeopathic products, as they are not always as strictly labelled.
AT THE BEAUTY COUNTER: Check if your favourite lipstick contains gluten because you always eat a bit of it…
AT CHURCH: Avoid wafers made of wheat. Ask the priest in advance about only receiving wine for communion.
AT THE POST OFFICE: The glue used for stamps and to seal envelopes contains gluten. Instead, use self-adhesive stamps or moisten the sticky part with water.
ENJOY A DRINK: Check if the liqueur or alcohol contains additives, such as caramel and colouring. Opt for a glass of wine, champagne, cider, port, or enjoy a gluten-free beer, such as La Messagère, blond or red, from the Microbrasserie Nouvelle-France (www.lesbieresnouvellefrance.com), sold in liquor stores across Canada.
IN THE KITCHEN: Clean utensils and work surfaces, such as a cooking board or bread board, before placing gluten-free food on it. If a food does not mention “gluten-free” on the packaging, play it safe and check with the company before use.
Use a separate electric grinder to grind gluten-free foods.
Make gluten-free bread in its own toaster to avoid contamination by crumbs from bread containing gluten.
All food spreads (jam, butter, margarine, peanut butter, mayonnaise…) that may contain bread crumbs should be bought in double or stored in separate containers.
In the fridge and pantry, place a coloured sticker on gluten-free foods so the whole family can easily identify them.
Information and support
Canadian Celiac Association
Health Canada (2009), Celiac Disease – The Gluten Connection
A good cookbook
The 125 Best Gluten-Free Recipes, by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt, Modus Vivendi, 2007, $19.95
An amazing restaurant in Montreal
Zero8 restaurant offers its guests cuisine free from the 8 most common allergens: wheat and other grains containing gluten, nuts, peanuts, fish and seafood, sesame, milk, soy, eggs. Frozen meals are also available for take-out at reasonable prices.
Zero8, 1735 Saint-Denis Street, Montreal. www.zero8.com
A great find
Here are some easy ways to find stores and restaurants across the country that offer gluten-free products:
The Celiac Scene offers users a list of celiac-endorsed restaurants and celiac-friendly fast food chains across the country at www.theceliacscene.com.
Ontario: Find gluten-free stores across the province at www.glutenfreeontario.ca.
Quebec: Find gluten-free stores in some major centres at Gaga for Gluten-Free at www.gagagf.com/stores-in-quebec.html.