Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people adopting them for health or lifestyle reasons. But what exactly does “gluten-free” mean? And does going gluten-free automatically mean you have to give up wheat too? The short answer is no, gluten-free does not necessarily mean wheat free. However, there is some nuance to this, so let’s take a deeper look.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). The two main proteins that make up gluten are:
When flour and water are combined and kneaded to make dough, these gluten proteins link together and form an elastic network that helps dough rise and keep its shape. This givesbread and other baked goods their chewy texture.
People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot tolerate the gluten protein. When they eat gluten, it triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. This is why those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity must follow a strict lifelong gluten-free diet.
What Foods Contain Gluten?
In addition to the obvious wheat-containing foods like bread, pasta, crackers and baked goods, gluten is also commonly found in:
- Brewer’s yeast
- Some oats (if processed in a facility that also handles wheat)
- Many processed foods and sauces
So in order to be gluten-free, these grains and any foods that contain them need to be avoided. Some other sources of hidden gluten include malt vinegar, soy sauce, salad dressings and seasoning mixes. It’s important to read ingredient labels carefully.
What is Wheat?
Wheat is a grass that is cultivated for its edible grains. There are many different types of wheat, but the most common varieties are:
- Durum wheat – used to make pasta
- Bread wheat – used for most baked goods
- All-purpose wheat – versatility for cakes, cookies, pastry, etc.
- Einkorn – ancient wheat, contains less gluten
Wheat grains contain three parts:
- Bran – outer layer with fiber
- Endosperm – largest part, contains starchy carbs
- Germ – nutrient-rich core
During milling, the wheat kernel is separated into refined flour (endosperm only) or whole wheat flour (uses all 3 parts).
Is All Wheat Gluten?
Yes, all types of wheat naturally contain gluten. Gluten is present throughout the entire wheat grain. This includes modern dwarf and ancient heirloom varieties, as well as hybridized wheat.
The only exceptions could be new gluten-free wheat varieties that are currently being developed through genetic modification. But these specialty wheat strains are not yet commercially available or approved for human consumption.
So at this time, it is accurate to say that all conventional and organic wheat on the market today does contain gluten.
While wheat inherently contains gluten, there are many nutritious gluten-free grains that are suitable for a wheat-free, gluten-free diet:
*Oats are naturally gluten-free but are often contaminated with traces of gluten during growing or processing unless certified gluten-free oats.
These grains can be used to make flour blends for baking gluten-free goods. There are also many types of gluten-free pasta, cereal, crackers and other products made with alternative gluten-free flours.
Can You Be Gluten-Free and Still Eat Wheat?
This is where things get a little complicated. There are certain wheat products that have been processed in a way to remove most or all gluten. However, they are still derived from wheat and not considered gluten-free. They may be marketed as “low gluten” or “very low gluten.”
- Wheat starch – Removes gluten using an extraction process
- Glucose syrup – Derived from wheat but lacks gluten peptide chains
- Wheat dextrin – Wheat carbohydrates converted into soluble fiber
- Distilled alcohol – Gluten proteins are not carried over in distillation
The FDA labeling laws actually allow foods processed to remove gluten to be labeled “gluten-free” if the finished product tests below 20ppm of gluten.
However, some individuals who are highly sensitive react to these traces of gluten. So whether or not wheat-derived ingredients (even when processed to remove gluten) can be included in a gluten-free diet is controversial.
Many health professionals advise strict avoidance of all wheat-based foods when following a gluten-free diet, even if processed to remove gluten.
What Do Gluten-Free Labels Mean?
Reading food labels is crucial when adhering to a gluten-free diet. Here is what to look for:
- Gluten-Free – Less than 20ppm of gluten. Considered safe for the majority of gluten intolerant individuals.
- Certified Gluten-Free – Tested to contain less than 10ppm of gluten. Extra assurance for highly sensitive individuals.
- Made in a gluten-free facility – Lower risk of cross-contamination during manufacturing.
- May contain wheat/gluten – Risk of trace amounts from processing.
- Contains wheat – Unsafe on a strict gluten-free diet.
- No gluten ingredients – No barley, rye, wheat but risk of contamination.
Checking for reputable gluten-free certifications can provide added peace of mind. Be aware that labels like “wheat-free” don’t guarantee it’s gluten-free since it could contain barley, rye or other gluten sources.
Is Gluten-Free Healthier?
There are differing opinions on this. On the one hand, research shows that many processed gluten-free substitute foods are not necessarily healthier. They tend to be higher in sugar, fat or salt to make them taste better. Also, avoiding all grains may mean missing out on beneficial nutrients like fiber, iron, folate and B vitamins.
However, a gluten-free diet can provide health benefits for those with a confirmed sensitivity or autoimmune disorder. Healing of the intestinal damage helps restore proper nutrient absorption. In general, a gluten-free diet based on lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, gluten-free whole grains and healthy fats is considered nutritionally sound.
Benefits of Going Gluten-Free
For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, here are some benefits of following a strict gluten-free diet:
- Improves digestive symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, gas and abdominal pain.
- Reduces inflammation in the gut and body.
- Heals damage to intestinal villi to improve nutrient absorption.
- Decreases risk of malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.
- May lessen joint pain, headaches or fatigue related to gluten reactions.
- Lowers risk of developing other autoimmune diseases.
- Can help resolve skin conditions like dermatitis herpetiformis.
- Improves cholesterol levels.
- In children, supports healthy growth and development.
The benefits start within weeks of eliminating gluten but the gut can take time to fully heal, especially in adults. Strict adherence to the diet is required to receive the most benefit. Always consult your healthcare provider before making major dietary changes.
Challenges of Following a Gluten-Free Diet
Despite the benefits for gluten-sensitive individuals, removing gluten completely does involve some challenges:
- Difficulty identifying hidden sources of gluten in processed foods, restaurants, etc.
- High cost of specialty gluten-free foods and ingredients.
- Social impact of diet restrictions, requiring diligence when dining out.
- Missing out on phytonutrients provided by whole grains with gluten.
- Increased risk of inadequate fiber intake.
- Higher intake of fat or carbs when relying on gluten-free substitute foods.
- Supports healthy growth and development.
Careful meal planning and preparation can help reduce these difficulties. Working with a knowledgeable dietitian can ensure proper nutritional balance. Peer support groups also help many dealing with the limitations of the diet.
Should You Try Going Gluten-Free?
Eliminating gluten is a serious commitment requiring significant lifestyle changes. It may provide benefits for those with diagnosed gluten issues, but is not recommended as a fad diet.
You may want to explore a gluten-free diet if you have:
- Ongoing digestive symptoms with no known cause.
- Chronic fatigue, joint pain, headaches or skin rashes.
- Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or thyroiditis.
- Nutrient deficiencies despite eating a balanced diet.
- Family members with celiac disease.
- Been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
However, restriction of any major food group long-term without medical need poses risks of nutritional imbalance. It’s best to check with your physician and get testing done before deciding to remove gluten completely. Many people find relief from symptoms by simply reducing gluten intake without strict elimination.
In summary, going gluten-free does not inherently mean you have to cut out all wheat too. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, but also rye, barley and other grains. You can eliminate gluten while still including some highly processed wheat ingredients that have had gluten removed. However, many health experts advise avoiding all sources of wheat as an added safety precaution when following a strict gluten-free diet, particularly for those highly sensitive.
While necessary for managing celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, removing gluten does come with challenges. Gluten-free diets are a lifelong commitment requiring caution to ensure nutritional needs are met. Anyone considering going gluten-free is advised to pursue testing and medical supervision to confirm necessity and support a healthy nutritional plan.