Is Gluten-Free Good?

Cruise the aisles of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s today – or even your neighborhood Shaw’s or Market Basket – and you’ll find so many gluten-free labels you’ll start to wonder whether your kids should be avoiding the stuff like the rest of the world seems to be. So you’ll know, here are the goods on gluten. 

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. In baked goods containing flour made from those grains, the gluten helps give elasticity to the dough, and helps it rise and keep its shape. Wheat starch is also used as a thickener in foods like salad dressings and gravies, and even medications. You can also find it in skincare products, shampoo and lipstick.

For preschoolers, a big source of gluten is Play-Doh, says Michelle Pietzak, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist, nutritionist and author of  The “Gluten Free MD” Explains Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Celiac Disease & Gluten Intolerance (New Era Productions, 2006). According to the manufacturer, the dough is primarily a mixture of water, salt and wheat flour, and Pietzak says that children are exposed to gluten when they handle the dough and then put their fingers in their mouths.

On food and product labels, you can spot gluten by looking for the words “wheat starch,” “wheat,” “rye,” “barley,” “barley malt” or “malt.” While oats don’t contain gluten, they are often milled with wheat and can become contaminated, so watch out for products containing oats, as well.

What Gluten Isn’t …

Gluten isn’t a dietary essential. “You don’t need gluten in your diet for anything,” says Pietzak. Skipping breads, cereals, granola and pasta containing gluten won’t hurt you as long as you take advantage of some of the many great sources of dietary fiber that don’t contain gluten. These include buckwheat, oats (as long as they are specifically labeled “gluten-free”), quinoa, corn and rice. You can also get plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables.

One thing a person on a gluten-free diet might miss out on is folic acid. This B vitamin has been shown to protect against a number of birth defects when a woman takes an adequate supply right before and just after she becomes pregnant, so many commercially produced baked goods and cereals are fortified with it. Pietzak recommends that women of childbearing age who go gluten-free take a folic acid supplement.


But while gluten isn’t vital, it also isn’t harmful to most people. So unless you have a specific gluten issue, there’s no reason to avoid it. Gluten-free foods aren’t healthier just because they are gluten-free, Pietzak says. But for people with gluten issues, having those foods available and prominently labeled makes life a lot easier. Pietzak notes three types of gluten issues:

• Celiac disease –
Many people mistakenly think celiac disease is a food allergy, but it isn’t. Celiac is an autoimmune disease. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune systems attack and damage the tiny villi that line their intestines. Unlike people with food allergies, who might be able to tolerate a bit of the food they are allergic to, people with celiac disease have to avoid gluten very strictly for the rest of their lives. “I tell my patients it’s crumbs of crumbs of crumbs,” says Pietzak, who recounts the story of one young patient who ate a single Saltine cracker and vomited for five days afterward. Other symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal bloating, diarrhea, constipation and weight loss.  

• Wheat allergy
– One of the more common food allergies in children, wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing wheat. Symptoms such as swelling and irritation of the mouth and throat, hives, nasal congestion, itchy eyes, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can set in within minutes. People with wheat allergy can also have a life-threatening reaction called “anaphylaxis,” where breathing becomes so difficult they lose consciousness. But unlike with celiac disease, Pietzak says, people often outgrow their wheat allergy.

• Gluten sensitivity –
The least understood of the gluten issues, gluten sensitivity can cause some of the same symptoms as celiac disease, but does not appear to cause the same damage to the intestines. Some people believe gluten sensitivity contributes to autism, leading to increasing numbers of children on the autism spectrum now following gluten-free diets. Pietzak says she believes this is behind the huge increase in availability and marketing of gluten-free foods. There is no clinical test to diagnose gluten sensitivity. Instead, doctors first rule out celiac disease and wheat allergy, and then see how the individual responds to a gluten-free diet.

Should You Go Gluten-Free?

Despite the fact that our bodies don’t really need gluten, if you suspect your child might be better on a gluten-free diet, you shouldn’t make the switch without consulting your doctor. It’s important to give your doctor a chance to figure out what is going on. “If you’re really better on a gluten-free diet, you should understand why,” Pietzak says


Christina Elston is a health writer and the editor of LA Parent.

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26 Jul 2013

By Christina Elston