Is gluten safe or is it bad for you?

Is gluten safe or is it bad for you?

It seems the whole world is avoiding gluten these days, but few people know exactly what it is. Ariel Conant breaks down the mysteries of this all-natural substance

Recently it seems that everyone is talking about going gluten-free. Gluten-free restaurants are popping up around Hong Kong, and gluten-free labels are appearing on food in some grocery stores. But what is this new trend really all about? Young Post asked the experts to help break it down.

Most people who avoid gluten say it's because of "gluten intolerance". But as Dr Adrian Wu, a specialist in immunology and allergy, explains, that's not the same as having an allergy or a disease.

"Any symptom that is undesirable ... after eating gluten can be called intolerance," he says, "so there is no standard definition."

If someone feels uncomfortable or gets a stomach ache after eating foods with gluten in them, then that could be considered an intolerance. But, Wu says, it all depends on the person. What some people consider normal - like a bit of trapped wind after eating pasta - other people might find distressing.

There are medical tests to prove if people have Coeliac Disease, which is a rare condition that causes a bad immune reaction to gluten. It can be very serious, but according to Wu, it is also very rare - especially in Asians. There are also tests for gluten allergy, which can cause severe side effects. While you might be able to get a blood test or buy a device that claims to test for gluten intolerance, Wu warns that these have no scientific basis. There is no scientific test to prove or diagnose a gluten intolerance. The only thing to do is to trust your gut!

For those people who do suffer from Coeliac Disease or a gluten allergy, a gluten-free diet is essential. "However, for everyone else, the health-halo around the gluten-free diet is a bit of a fad," admits Iris Van Kerckhove from Mana! restaurant, which offers many gluten-free options.

"Like all fad diets, it's not the miracle cure for everyone." But for those who believe they have a gluten intolerance, Van Kerckhove says, gluten-free foods can provide relief and help people develop a healthier digestive system.

And because it may help some people, there's no real harm in giving it a try. For someone who feels they have a gluten intolerance, Wu says he supports their decision to try a gluten-free diet, especially since gluten is not an essential nutrient.

Van Kerckhove feels the same way. "As long as you are eating a balanced diet of real food and plenty of vegetables to cover your nutritional bases, you really don't need wheat in your diet at all," she says.

The key is to make smart decisions about which foods to eat. "You should avoid eating gluten-free products that are produced with low-quality ingredients and processed sugar," says Ifat Kafry Hindes, founder and director of the gluten-free bakery Choice Cooperative. Knowing what is in your food is crucial to general health and nutrition.

Van Kerckhove agrees. "Gluten-free doesn't necessarily mean healthy," she warns. People avoiding gluten need to be very aware of what they are eating and make healthy decisions. With more and more Hong Kong restaurants offering gluten-free options, the choices are becoming easier.

But as Hindes says: "Make sure you know what goes on your plate. The rest is easy."

What is gluten anyway? Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains. It's what gives bread that chewy texture. It's sometimes added to processed foods that are otherwise low in protein.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Gluten: safe or sickening?

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