Is the gluten-free trend just a fad, or is it a source of real health benefits? In 2018, the global market for gluten-free products was estimated at USD 4.48 billion. Relayed by the media and the food industry, it should reach USD 7.5 billion by 2027. So, is this a craze or a physiological reality? Let’s go back to the basics first.
What is gluten? What is it used for?
Gluten is a protein in rye, oats, wheat, and barley. Gluten develops -if and only if- two proteins present in these cereals, prolamins, and glutelins, are mixed with water. After kneading the flour, a gluten network forms, and the dough becomes sticky and elastic. On the other hand, the carbonic gas retained by this same gluten network generates the swelling of the dough during fermentation. So, you won’t be surprised to learn that gluten means “gum” or “glue” in Latin! As a binding and texturizing agent, you will also find it in cooked meats or prepared dishes. But then, why does this gluten-free trend persist if gluten is just a protein?
Gluten-free diet: what's the problem with gluten?
Wheat flour is a central element in French gastronomy. So, one is tempted to ask, where does the gluten-free trend come from? Indeed, our ancestors do not seem to have given it any importance. The key lies in the chronology! So, let’s go back in time.
Before the Second World War, wheat was still artisanal, with traditional varieties cultivated without chemical fertilizers. During the conception of the bread, the bread has time to ferment thanks to a natural leaven. Then it is kneaded manually at a low temperature.
After the Second World War, the industrial food industry arrived. Selection of dwarf wheat varieties to increase yields, cultivation in cold countries when wheat worships the sun, use of chemical yeast, acceleration of the kneading speed, and deep-freezing.
Therefore, many new processes have changed our wheat’s properties, impacting the human body’s tolerance capacities during digestion.
There are no two versions of ourselves. Indeed, no digestive system is similar to that of its neighbor. Some people have adapted to the evolution and can consume our current wheat without consequence. However, others have more difficulties and see the gluten-free trend as a saving grace. Therefore, let’s clarify the different existing pathologies.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction. Gliadin causes an inflammatory response of the duodenum. As a result, this disease causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, dermatitis herpetiformis, weight loss, growth retardation, and sleep and concentration problems. The diagnosis of celiac disease requires the measurement of IgA anti-transglutaminase antibodies. The only currently recognized treatment is a strict gluten-free diet.
The ingestion of food containing gluten triggers an allergy to wheat. It appears a few minutes to hours after the ingestion of wheat. It includes skin, digestive, respiratory and cardiovascular reactions, up to anaphylactic shock. The diagnosis of the allergy takes place by skin tests. But also by the dosage of IgE-specific antibodies (beware of cross-reactions with other grasses). Or by a provocation test under medical supervision. The only treatment is to avoid wheat in the diet.
Gluten sensitivity & gluten-free diet
Finally, non-celiac gluten sensitivity concerns patients with digestive and extra-digestive symptoms. These symptoms can be abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, vomiting, pruritus, fatigue, headaches, and depression. They occur as a result of the ingestion of gluten. This disease also affects patients whose celiac disease and wheat allergy have been excluded. The symptoms appear after consumption of gluten with a median of three days. They disappear when a gluten-free diet starts. Symptoms are common in both irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut syndrome. Therefore, exploring the different paths before making a diagnosis may be worthwhile. A partially gluten-free diet could be recommended (with periodic reintroduction depending on each individual’s tolerance level).
The gluten-free trend, a diet to be followed with discernment
In conclusion, gluten-free does not concern the entire population, and it is good to be discerning. Therefore, if you don’t have any of the symptoms mentioned above, gluten-free is not a physiological necessity for you. There is no point in depriving yourself! If not, do not hesitate to consult a specialist to find out what solution could help you.