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Going Against Grain Gets Easier

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:15pm

Wheat, rye, and barley are staples of the American diet and an economic mainstay for farmers around the world.

That's not likely to change soon. But a growing number of Americans -- one in 133 -- can't digest a protein called gluten found in these crops. A Mayo Clinic study finds that an autoimmune reaction to gluten is four times more common today than 50 years ago.

Gluten irritates and inflames the small intestine, preventing nutrient absorption. "If untreated, it triggers the immune system, causing a condition called celiac disease," says Janice Hermann, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist.

It's often difficult to diagnose. The only treatment for gluten intolerance or celiac disease is a diet free of foods containing wheat, barley, rye, and related grains.

Gluten isn't only in bread or pasta -- it's in an array of items from salad dressing to ice cream.

Fortunately, today's gluten-free (GF) specialty section in supermarkets has expanded, restaurants are featuring more GF menu items, and recipe Web sites ease menu planning.

Beginning in 2006, U.S. food labels were required to add a special allergy statement if wheat protein -- even in small amounts -- is contained in an ingredient. This regulation doesn't pertain to other gluten-containing grains, so labels still must be checked carefully. Wheat-free doesn't mean gluten-free.

Pure oats don't contain gluten, Hermann says, but it's difficult to find an oat source without any contact with gluten during processing. Check with the manufacturer to make sure sources of these ingredients exclude gluten: caramel, hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), malt and its derivatives, modified food starch, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and textured vegetable protein (TVP).

When baking or cooking, flour substitutes include corn, potatoes, rice, soy, tapioca, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, and quinoa. "Food may have different textures and flavors due to using these flour substitutes," Hermann says.

Fresh meats, fruits, vegetables, milk, and legumes are naturally gluten-free.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance include abdominal cramps, intestinal gas, chronic diarrhea or constipation (or both), anemia, weight fluctuations, bone or joint pain, and fatigue or weakness, among others.

Celiac disease tends to run in families. Some individuals have minimal symptoms, and a blood test is used to diagnose it. An estimated 10% of people with type 1 diabetes have celiac disease.

Wheat, rye, and barley are staples of the American diet and an economic mainstay for farmers around the world.

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