I have been really surprised to see the terms “gluten-free” or “without gluten” on so many food products lately. Growing up, I never saw the term and well, I didn’t even know what gluten was! I have also seen many news stories and countless pins on Pinterest detailing what is and is not included in a gluten-free diet. It seems like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to eliminate gluten from his or her diet. I know what gluten is; I’ve learned about it in my food science classes, but I wondered if there was any benefit from eliminating gluten from one’s diet and just how gluten labeling is regulated in the United States.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of the three. It is what provides the structure, strength, and texture to most baked goods and pastas. Gluten is naturally in the flour used to make breads and humans have been eating it since they have learned to grow and harvest grains. Gluten can also be found in products like candy, salad dressing, and imitation meats since wheat, rye, and barley are sometimes added as a functional ingredient.

Who Should Avoid Gluten?

The only type of people who should absolutely not eat gluten are those with celiac disease. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, it is “a disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine”. This means that the body will create an immune response in those with celiac disease that attacks the small intestine, damaging it, not unlike immune responses caused by the body to fight off other illnesses or infections. Such damage to the small intestine can prevent the absorption of nutrients from food, which mainly occurs in the small intestine.

If the body cannot take in important nutrients like vitamins and minerals, it can become deficient and cause malnutrition and other diseases such as type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, herpetiformis (a skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, intestinal cancers, or neurological disorders. It is very important to diagnose celiac disease early on to avoid other diseases and disorders. Symptoms of the disease include mainly gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition. The only treatment for celiac disease is to simply not eat gluten, which can be a challenge.

The Gluten Free Trend

Recently, it has been a trend to turn to a gluten-free diet in the name of health. However, gluten is not inherently bad for humans who do not have celiac disease. Some say that it can improve weight loss, but there has not been any evidence to suggest that merely eliminating gluten from one’s will cause weight loss. Weight loss may occur simply because more healthful diets tend to result from a gluten-free diet. This is not to say gluten is unhealthy, but rather that people who watch to make sure that there is no gluten in the food they eat may also take notice of the other foods they are choosing.

Instead of consuming pasta, burgers, and other foods that are high in calories, people may be choosing to eat salads, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which tend to be lower in calories. It would be important to remember that even gluten-free foods are unhealthy too, such as gluten-free snacks, cakes, and cookies. Avoiding gluten may just be a great way to force oneself to eat healthier.

Others say that they just plain old feel better when they do not eat gluten or restrict their intake of it. This, it turns out, may have some truth to it. According to Harvard Medical School, some people may have a slight sensitivity to gluten, rather than being intolerant like those with celiac disease. Some people may experience gas, bloating, and indigestion after consuming gluten, but their bodies will not elicit an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine. These people could choose to reduce or eliminate their intake of gluten because they do not like the discomfort it causes them, much like those who avoid acidic foods so that they do not get heartburn.

Gluten Free Standards

As of this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put in place regulations on standards and definitions on what gluten-free means for food products. Before this regulation, there were no such standards in the United States, which made it difficult for those with celiac disease or those who avoid gluten to be sure that the products they were consuming were free of gluten and free of contamination of gluten. Labels such as “gluten-free”, “free of gluten”, “no gluten” or “without gluten” remain as voluntary food labels that companies can place on their products that are gluten-free.

Of course, the companies must first meet FDA requirements for the label that include proof that their product does not have any gluten or gluten derivatives and that they meet food safety requirements that prevent contamination of non-gluten products with gluten products. This regulation gives those that avoid gluten reassurance that products that are labeled gluten-free are indeed gluten free.

So, in conclusion, there no conclusive data that suggests that cutting out gluten will cause weight loss or that gluten is unhealthy. However, going gluten-free may help to promote healthy eating. Regardless, new, recent regulations from the FDA are now making it easier for the public to choose gluten-free products with confidence and helping those with celiac disease lead a healthier and more comfortable life.