In recent years, the gluten-free market has boomed. According to the Food Standards Agency, the British gluten-free market is worth £238 million annually, and grew by more than 15% from 2012 to 2013.
Put simply, more and more people are swapping traditional pastas, breads and pizza for gluten-free products, which are available in all shapes and forms in our supermarkets.
The question is however, are these alternative foods healthy, and is ditching gluten for good really going to make a difference to our health and well-being?
Here is a simple guide to gluten and what it could mean to you:
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is what makes pizza dough stretchy and gives bread its spongy texture.
Can it affect our health?
Traditionally, gluten has been avoided by sufferers of coeliac disease – an unpleasant disorder that involves an auto-immune response to wheat where the body believes wrongly that gluten is attacking it. This prevents the absorption of essential nutrients during the digestive process and can end up damaging the small intestine. Side effects include osteoporosis, infertility and intestinal cancer.
Coeliac disease affects one in every 100 people in the UK, and more and more people are being diagnosed each year. Greater awareness of the condition and improved diagnostic methods are thought to have contributed to the expanding gluten-free community – as is the increased interest in non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. This is a recently discovered condition where gluten affects some people in the same way as coeliac sufferers, causing similar reactions but not the same level of damage.
Are you a sufferer?
If you are concerned you may be gluten-intolerant, arrange an appointment with your doctor to have blood taken. You may also want to consider contacting a nutritionist who will analyse your food diary, and the way your body reacts to certain foods to reach a conclusion. If you are diagnosed with a gluten-intolerance, a nutritionist can advise a gluten-free diet, and what the healthiest alternatives are. This is crucial for ensuring you do not lose the goodness you previously got from gluten-rich foods, including B vitamins, fibre and iron.
Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthier
Although many people will embark on a gluten-free diet to aid weight-loss, sometimes only eating gluten-free foods can cause other health issues. In some cases, gluten-free foods will substitute the missing protein with fats or sugars to retain the flavour. Again a nutritionist is a valuable source of advice for seeking out the healthiest options, but it is generally advised that you stick to fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy and gluten-free grains to keep your diet natural and healthy.