Is going gluten-free good for me?

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1. Gluten-free: life-changing diet or food fad?

Sales of gluten-free products are soaring in the UK. According to Mintel, 7% of adults say they avoid gluten because of an 'allergy' or 'intolerance', and a further 8% avoid it as part of a 'healthy lifestyle'. It’s true that eating gluten can lead to serious health problems for people with coeliac disease. But can switching to a gluten-free diet have benefits for everyone, or is it a food fad that's actually posing a danger to our health?

2. What causes a reaction to gluten?

If bread, pasta and other gluten-containing ingredients make you feel unwell, does this mean you have an allergy, an intolerance or an autoimmune disease?

Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a serious, lifelong genetic digestive condition in which the immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten, damaging the lining of the small intestine. As a result of this, the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance - it is an autoimmue disease. There is no cure and you must follow a gluten-free diet for life, even if your symptoms are mild. Reported cases of coeliac disease are two to three times higher in women than men.

Wheat allergy

A wheat allergy is a reaction to one element within wheat (not gluten), and usually occurs within seconds of eating. If you have a wheat allergy, you may still be able to eat barley and rye, and you may get a reaction from gluten-free products if they contain other parts of the wheat.

Gluten intolerance

Reports of gluten intolerance are more common than occurances of coeliac disease or wheat allergy. Gluten intolerance does not involve the immune system, is not genetic and does not seem to damage the gut. There is some debate about whether gluten is to blame, or whether other components that are removed from the diet when people stop eating gluten-containing ingredients are the culprits. For example, if you cut gluten out of your diet you'll often cut out refined carbs by default, and the health benefits you experience may be connected more to this. Food intolerance (or 'non-coeliac gluten sensitivity') symptoms tend to come on more slowly than allergy symptoms, often hours after eating.

3. Who really has a food allergy?

Percentage of UK people who have coeliac disease

Statistics are taken from YouGov, Mintel and the NHS.

Although many people are self-diagnosing coeliac disease, a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance, experts think milder cases of coeliac disease often go undiagnosed. If you're experiencing symptoms, it's important to rule coeliac disease out by being tested, especially if you have a family history of it. According to the NHS, continuing to eat gluten can lead to serious complications for those with the disease, including osteoporosis, iron-deficiency anaemia and vitamin B12- and folate-deficiency anaemia. Less common and more serious complications include some types of cancers. Coeliac UK research shows the average time it takes to be diagnosed is 13 years.

4. How healthy are gluten-free foods?

Having coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance doesn't have to mean eating unhealthily. Click on the hand to find out more about these gluten-free ingredients and how to use them in cooking.

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5. What are the risks of a gluten-free diet?

For most people, eating a gluten-free diet won’t provide a health benefit. What’s more, unnecessarily following a gluten-free diet may have dangers for health unless you pay close attention to nutrition.

Wholegrain wheat, barley and rye contain the bran, germ and endosperm of the grain and therefore contain gluten. They are high in nutrition, including fibre, iron, B vitamins and calcium.

Products that have had the gluten removed are made with refined grains. The refined grain only contains the endosperm and is therefore much less nutritious. If you’re thinking of going gluten-free, it’s important to eat more naturally gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and buckwheat, instead of these refined foods.

The growth of gluten-free marketing has resulted in booming profits for the industry, and some of the products have been accused of being high in fat and calories.

6. Where is gluten hiding?

Pastries, cakes, biscuits and breads are all widely known to contain gluten, but where else is it hiding?

Breakfast cereals

Most breakfast cereals will contain some wheat and gluten.

Look for

Oats & gluten-free alternative

instead

Try porridge oats, corn flakes and granola - but always check the label.

Sauces and stocks

Gluten can be found in chicken, beef or vegetable stocks plus soy sauces, other sauces including gravies, marinades, ketchup, mayonnaise and salad dressings.

Look for

Gluten-free alternatives

instead

When choosing your stocks and sauces, always check the label. Also be careful to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.

Crisps and pretzels

Gluten is in many snacks, including pretzels, Bombay mix and many crisps.

Look for

Prawn crackers and rice cakes

instead

Also look for popcorn, plain nuts and seeds and gluten-free crisps - but always check the label.

Beer, lager, stout and ale

Certain alcoholic drinks such as beer, ale, light beer and hard liquors can be made using grains that contain gluten.

Look for

Cider, wine and water

instead

Sherry, port and liqueurs are also suitable for people with coeliac disease and there are gluten-free beers, lagers and stouts - but always check the label.