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Coeliac Awareness Week - What is Gluten?

Following a gluten free diet isn’t easy, so it’s important to get symptoms checked out by a doctor, and to secure the right advice. Today we thought we’d start at the beginning, and delve a bit deeper into the science of gluten.

**An Introduction to Gluten**

With gluten-free foods becoming more widely available, and the popularity of following gluten- free diets growing exponentially, there is no doubt that gluten is something that many people will have heard about – but what really is it? And why are people so keen to take it out of their diets?

In simple terms, gluten is a protein that is found in the cereals wheat, barley and rye. Meaning ‘glue’ from its Latin origin, this is exactly what gluten does in our food – it gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to maintain a certain texture.

As an ingredient the two sub proteins of gluten – gliadin and glutenin – form strands which strengthen dough, and trap the air released from raising agents such as yeast. Gluten, through baking, stabilises the final structure of bread so it is an important ingredient for manufacturers. Gluten, on its own doesn’t enhance the flavour of a food – in fact, it has a chalky taste and can be quite stringy – a bit like a very ‘unsticky’ bubble gum! For the majority of people, including gluten within the diet will cause no adverse effect.

**Gluten in our food**

Gluten is naturally occurring in the cereals wheat, barley and rye, and because of this is found in many staple foods within our diet including:-

- Bread
- Pasta
- Cakes
- Breakfast cereals

Gluten may also be extracted and used as an added ingredient in other foods – either through the use of wheat derivatives, or as a single ingredient. In this form it may appear in other non-cereal based foods such as soy sauce, gravies and beer which may be more unexpected.

Although gluten, itself, isn’t classified as one of the 14 major allergens highlighted by the EU for labelling purposes, manufacturers do have to highlight the presence of cereals containing gluten on pre-packed foods. New legislation in the catering industry means that this information should also be readily available in any restaurant or café providing food and drink.

**Avoiding Gluten**

Around 1 in 100 people in the UK have been diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, and it is thought that this might just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of people who are either misdiagnosed with other conditions, or who remain undiagnosed. Coeliac Disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease caused by intolerance to gluten. For people with Coeliac Disease the only solution is to avoid gluten completely from the diet – going gluten-free is not a choice.

The gluten-free market is growing – with a reported 15% of households in the UK avoiding wheat and gluten (Mintel 2014), many of whom do so due to lifestyle choices rather than a medical reason. In addition 1 in 10 new food products launched in 2014 were gluten-free highlighting the expansion of this market.

For people with Coeliac Disease, the increase in gluten-free products is good news meaning more choice, and a heightened understanding of the requirements of a gluten-free diet. At the same time, the rise in people choosing a gluten-free diet for lifestyle reasons – less bloating, weight loss, detoxing, feeling less tired – may be having an effect on how seriously the needs of Coeliacs are taken.

For those with Coeliac Disease following a diet completely free from gluten is essential. Proper diagnosis is vital to ensure that the health and dietary needs of the individual are met – just removing gluten from the diet after symptoms can extend the time to diagnosis, and more importantly delay appropriate treatment, advice and recovery.

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