For most of us, the smell of freshly baked pie crust or the flavor of a chewy, al dente pasta is nothing short of drool worthy. But to a small percentage of the population, these foods are synonymous with sickness and discomfort.
And it's all because of gluten.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance have run rampant in the past few years, and it seems nowadays that gluten is public enemy number one. Avoiding gluten has almost become trendy, although for people who have been diagnosed with either of these diseases, going gluten-free wasn't a decision taken lightly.
To understand what gluten-free means, first you need to understand what gluten is. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and rye that gives dough its elasticity. In doughs, gluten also traps the carbon-dioxide that ferments as the dough bakes and gives the bread volume.
Bread and pastries aren't the only foods that contains gluten, however — gluten is often used as a stabilizing agent in other foods like sauces, imitation meats, and ice cream. Other foods made from wheat or barley, such as beer and pasta, also contain gluten. Some medications even use gluten in their binding.
But why has gluten become a problem? After all, people have eaten bread for centuries — millennia, even. Scientists aren't sure why so many more people have suddenly become intolerant to this protein, but the research is clear: More and more people are becoming gluten-intolerant.
A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that celiac disease is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack the small intestine when you eat gluten. This damages the villi, the small finger-like projections in your intestine that help your body absorb nutrients.
Symptoms of celiac disease include indigestion, bloating, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, migraines, seizures and infertility. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to other autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and anemia. The only treatment for celiac disease is avoiding gluten.
About 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Celiac disease is hereditary, and people with a close relative who has the disease have a 1 in 10 risk of developing it.
Close to one-third of Americans, however, say they avoid gluten. Those who do not test positive for celiac disease but experience some of the symptoms may have a gluten sensitivity. The only way to be sure you have a gluten sensitivity is to cut gluten out of your diet and see if your symptoms go away.
Though there is no treatment for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the good news is that going gluten-free has become much easier. Living with celiac no longer means you have to give up your favorite baked goods or pasta dishes. You can now find everything from gluten-free flour to gluten-free pasta to gluten-free desserts.
Photo credit: M & K Frey via Flickr