That mild-mannered pile of flour on your pasta-making board could be evil. It probably contains the protein known as gluten, the “glue” that gives doughs their texture and elasticity and helps them rise to fluffiness. But a glue can be a danger. Although only 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, with its severe physical reaction to gluten, nearly a third of us — 29 percent — claim to be avoiding or planning to start cutting down on gluten, according to the NDP Group, a market-research company.
Reasons range from that celiac-disease diagnosis to a wheat allergy to wheat intolerance to just believing that wheat is so unhealthy for you that you feel better without it.
But giving it up is somewhat more complicated than leaving the bun off your burger, as gluten can lurk in many unexpected places. Plus, the prospect of a newly diagnosed intolerance of gluten, with no pizza, pasta, bread or cake ever again, is fairly earth-shaking. The majority of breads contain the wheat, rye and barley that contains gluten. So does beer, cereal and a lot of processed foods. Avoiding it is not an easy task, but a serious and necessary one for the person with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is a genetic disorder of malabsorption, an abnormal immune-response reaction to gluten that inflames and damages the small intestine. Symptoms common in children include vomiting, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and constipation. Adults may have no symptoms at all, or feel fatigue, anxiety, depression, a blistering skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis, oral canker sores, missed periods, infertility, arthritis, bone or joint pain or seizures. It can lead to complications like intestinal cancer, liver disease, osteoporosis, anemia and malnutrition.
The symptoms of celiac disease can be confused with the manifestations of several other diseases. It can also remain dormant until an episode of stress, illness, pregnancy or childbirth triggers it.
Wheat allergy, one of the most common allergies of children and often outgrown, comes from an antibody to the proteins in wheat. Some of the symptoms include swelling of the face, coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, itchy watery eyes and skin rashes such as hives.