Ok I lured you with this apple cinnamon roll picture. Sorry, but if you need to know this lip smacking bun is full of gluten. Made with strong white bread flour to get the optimal gluten for its soft, fluffy texture. Whilst I am fully on board and sympathised with those diagnosed with coeliacs, making gluten strictly not tolerable in the diet, I have mixed views about the ever burgeoning popularity of gluten-free diet, medically speaking that is. So with this ‘Ask the Doctor’ platform, let’s have a look in closer detail about gluten, gluten-free diet, the real medical facts, the popular myth, and why gluten-free diet may also be harmful for your health.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and oats. In baking context, the higher the gluten, the dough will be more elastic and produces soft chewy textture. This is particularly useful for breads. Even thugh gluten is mostly found in wheat, barley and oats, it is also present in most grains including spelt, durum, semolina or even malt, but in varying quantity and negligible reactions.
A bit on Coeliac disease..
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune medical condition that usually affects people with Irish background, and manifests as irritable bowel symptoms such as stomach bloatedness, diarrhoea after meals, weight loss, nausea or tiredness. In some cases, there is no stomach symptoms but the patient presents with skin rash known as ‘dermatitis herpetiformis’- which looks like red patches on shoulder, elbow and even face. This disease is caused by the body’s immune cells reaction on gluten, which can be found in wheat, oats and barley traditionally.
Those affected by coeliacs are at increased risk of developing lymphoma. The best medical treatment for the condition is total omission of gluten and gluten products in the diet. The disease is also hereditary, affects generally 10-15 % of world population, and more likely to occur if someone immediate to your family ( ie mother, sister, brother) was diagnosed with it.
Now the question is, are you one in the 10-15% world population?
The likely chances are, you are not. Yet a lot of us have resorted to a total omission of barley, wheat and oats in the diet, based on some vague symptoms that may as well be something else, like inflammatory bowel disease or simple irritable bowel symptoms.
Is there any other condition that may benefit from Gluten-free diet?
Research have now found that Meniere’s disease, which is a condition that manifests as vertigo ( spinning of head ), hearing loss and tinnitus ( buzzing noise in the ear) has causal relationship with gluten. A lot of those with Meniere’s became better once they omit gluten from the diet.
So now that we have covered the medical grounds, let’s go back to this gluten-free diet. Despite the popularity of gluten-free products in the market, a lot of baked products such as bread, biscuits, cereals, crackers or even soups may contain gluten. When one is removing gluten from the diet, there is a higher chance that this may lead to serious vitamin and nutrients deficiencies, due to the imbalance in the diet. In fact a lot of coeliacs patients are at risk of developing other conditions such as osteoporosis, anaemia or other conditions related to vitamin deficiencies.
Whilst all is good in supporting the availability of gluten-free products and gluten-free recipes it is important to remember that this is only necessary for those with confirmed coeliacs, or autoimmune such as Meniere disease. The other thing is, oats is really good for our health, and proven to reduce the total cholesterol in the body, yet we are denying ourselves the benefit if one were to go for gluten-free diet, unnecessarily.
Myth 1. Gluten-free diet is helpful in weight loss.
Well, to an extent if you are cutting down on the food, there is a high chance that you are also cutting down on the calories. The best diet is one that includes all category of food, including carbohydrate. Replacing wheat ( breads) with breads or cakes made using almond flour and all other funny flour will not make you slim, especially when the cakes have tonnes of butter and sugar.
Myth 2. Spelt is a good alternative to wheat and is gluten-free.
No it’s not. Spelt is full of gluten, and should not be considered for coeliacs diet.
Myth 3. Gluten-free alternatives are healthier, such as xanthan gum.
Ok this is slightly like Myth 1, but I want to direct your attention to stuff used in gluten-free recipes. One of it is xanthan gum which is a thickener. By the way, studies have shown that foods with xanthan gum can cause death in infant, and also choking hazard. In adults, it may cause flatulence, bloatedness and intestinal abnormalities.
Myth 4. ‘Funny flours’ such as millet, amaranth, spelt is healthier than wheat.
Whilst it is good to experiment with flours, it is important to remember that wheat is not harmful for you either. Neither do you have to omit ‘white refined flour’ totally from your diet. In fact a lot of colorectal cancer patients are advised to go on low residue diet, ie, white bread, white rice and less on grains. It really depends on your body condition. Generally whole grains are healthier, but there are circumstance whereby white flour is medically preferred, for a reason.
I hope this little overview is helpful for us bakers who are always on the lookout for ‘healthier’ alternatives, or when following the trend of what’s popular today. Read things on the net with a pinch of salt as there are just too many wrong facts flying about, so always, always confirm with your own medical practitioner.