Have you recently been diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity, or coeliac disease? Or are you trying to isolate a food intolerance, and think gluten might be the culprit?
Read on to find out what gluten is, where it is found, and the foods you can still include in your diet while living gluten free.
What exactly is gluten?
Found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, gluten is a form of protein with sticky properties when mixed with water. It’s what gives bread its doughy consistency.
When mixed with warm liquid, gluten reacts with yeast to form gas pockets which, when baked in a hot oven, expand to create the chewy texture we all love.
Experts believe the protein gliadin, found in gluten, is to blame for the health issues associated with eating gluten that some people experience.
What’s the difference between a gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease?
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder, with at least 1 in 100 people thought to be affected1. With coeliac disease, the immune system treats gluten as an invader, and in the process of trying to ‘fight’ gluten, attacks healthy tissues inside the gut.
Symptoms include short-term gastro-intestinal problems such as constipation and indigestion after eating gluten, as well as more serious longer-term issues as a result of not being able to absorb nutrients properly. These include malnutrition and weight loss.
Those with coeliac disease must completely avoid all traces of gluten. Even crumb cross- contamination from using the same toaster as someone who makes non-gluten free toast can cause symptoms for coeliacs.
Gluten sensitivity is an intolerance to gluten, and a food allergy rather than an autoimmune disorder. The symptoms of gluten sensitivity are similar to coeliac disease (gastro-intestinal problems, diarrhoea, constipation etc) but less severe. There are usually no long-term effects on the body with gluten sensitivity, so long as dietary gluten is avoided.
If you’re noticing digestive problems when you eat anything containing gluten, it’s a good idea to rule out coeliac disease first. You must be diagnosed with coeliac disease by a doctor.
Find out more: What is gluten intolerance?
What foods DO contain gluten?
In the modern Western diet, gluten is found most commonly in wheat products, as well as in barley and rye. Gluten-rich foods to avoid include pasta, most bread, flour, cakes, couscous, breakfast cereals, biscuits, pizza, beer, ready meals, and processed soups.
There are also several lesser-known grains which also contain gluten. According to the Coeliac UK2 this includes:
- Emmer (also known as faro)
- Khorasan wheat (known as Kamut®)
- Pearl barley
What are some of the foods which you can still enjoy?
A gluten free diet might sound restrictive – in fact, many foods are gluten free in their natural form. Where you need to be careful is when manufacturers and chefs add gluten to previously gluten free foods for texture or flavour.
Further, the gluten free market is growing rapidly, with a 43% increase from 2015 to 20203. This means there has been a huge rise in products such as pasta, bread and cereals which do not contain gluten, which offers greater freedom of choice than ever before.
The following foods are all naturally gluten free:
Meat and fish
Meat and fish are naturally gluten free, but they can come with sauces, flavourings or marinades which do contain gluten.
Anything breaded or with a crumb contains gluten from wheat – so is off the menu.
Fruit and vegetables
Again, fruit and vegetables are naturally gluten free.
If the product is processed (e.g. tinned fruit or vegetable broth) you will need to check the label as certain additives, such as thickeners, DO contain gluten.
Pure fruit juice is gluten free, but smoothies can contain traces of gluten-containing grains. Fruit squashes such as barley water are also not suitable on a gluten free diet.
If the product is pre-prepared, such as sliced fruit, you might want to confirm if it has been prepared in a gluten free area if you are coeliac.
Milk and other dairy products
Most milk and cheese products are gluten free. Again, this is in their unadulterated form. Processed cheese, flavoured ice cream, malted milkshakes and some flavoured yoghurts (such as those which contain cereals) can contain gluten.
Gluten free carb-lovers can rejoice, as potatoes are gluten free.
Oats are naturally gluten free but are often processed in factories which also produce other cereals which do contain gluten. For this reason, coeliacs should always choose oats labelled as gluten free.
Rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth are all gluten free grains. Corn is also gluten free. Corn and maize flours are excellent for use in baked goods to replace wheat flour.
Rice or soba noodles are a good substitute for regular noodles, and pasta made from brown rice flour, chickpea flour or quinoa is delicious with your favourite gluten free sauces.
If you are coeliac or have a high sensitivity to gluten, it’s a good idea to only choose grains which are labelled ‘gluten free’, and you can be sure they have been made in a facility where there is no cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains.
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