Iced sugar cookie cut outs in shapes of stars, circles and reindeer. Chocolate chip cookies. Rosemary lemon clover-leaf rolls. Challah bread. YUM! I love to bake. Where some love to cook, baking is one of my vices. This time of year I normally look forward to baking my holiday favorites for family and friends: russian teacakes, chocolate peppermint wheels, pumpkin-filled empanadas, and spumoni cookies. There is nothing better than a warm cup of tea, eggnog, coffee or a hot toddy to wash down the warm buttery goodness of a holiday cookie! And when I bite into that piece of delicious guilt, I savor every bit until…
…Until I feel a little uncomfortable. My stomach rumbles and not because it is hungry but because it is upset. Upset because I have a wheat intolerance. Unfortunately being wheat intolerant means shopping for gluten-free products in the grocery store.
What is gluten-free?
Most people who choose to go gluten-free do so because they have gluten sensitive enteropathy (GSE) or Celiac disease (CD). CD is an inheritable autoimmune disorder affecting roughly 1 in 133 people according to a 2003 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Individuals with CD are unable to eat foods that contain the protein gluten because of an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine. Currently the only solution for individuals suffering from CD is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. This means nothing that is made with wheat, spelt (an ancient form of wheat), barley, or rye because they contain the protein gluten.
If you are thinking, “That sucks!” You are right, it does! When I first discovered my wheat intolerance I thought my diet was rather restrictive but for a person suffering from CD it means a strict diet. I didn’t even know what gluten was when I first heard the word. I was surprised to learn that CD was first discovered in 250 A.D. by Aretaeus of Cappadocia as a bowel infliction or “koiliakos – suffering of the bowels”. Later in 1856, the name “celiacs” was termed (Celiac Sprue Association, 2009). However, celiac disease wasn’t linked to diet until 1888 by Dr. Samuel Gee of the United Kingdom. And then in 1952, Dr. Willem Karel Dicke, a Dutch pediatrician discovered that the disease was caused by eating proteins found in wheat.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in the endosperms of (wheat, barley, rye) grains and is primarily used in processed foods such as breads and pastas. However, it may also be used in medications (National Institutes of Health, 2008).
What happens to gluten in our bodies?
When food is digested, the proteins, fat and carbohydrates travel through the digestive tract to the small intestine for absorption. By the time the products reach the small intestine they have been broken down so that they may be absorbed through the intestinal lining. In most people, the protein gluten has no effect; however, in individuals with CD the body sees the protein gluten as an intruder and triggers an immune response.
In essence, for those suffering from CD their body sees the protein gluten as a virus and launches an attack to fend off the virus. It is similar to how our bodies fight infections.
When gluten passes through the intestinal lining, it appears to the individual with CD as an antigen. An antigen is a molecule that our body doesn’t like and therefore makes an antibody specifically to fight off and kill the antigen. This signals the body’s immune response and T-cells and B-cells specifically for gluten are released to rid the body of the infection. While the body is fighting the gluten invader, the villi of the small intestine (lining) are damaged. Damage to the villi leads to malabsorption of not only the protein gluten but all other proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Hence a strict gluten free diet.
CD is sometimes called a silent disease because it goes undiagnosed and has symptoms that are similiar to irritable bowl syndrome. Research is now showing connections between Celiac Disease and other auto-immune disorders such as type-1 diabetes and thyroid disorders. Additionally, an article in the Huffington Post discusses the affect gluten sensitivity has on the brain. In the article, Dr. David Pearlmutter talks about the amazing improvements he has seen in a child’s academic performance once the child was diagnosed and advised to go on a gluten-free diet.
Testing is a blood test performed by your doctor that determines if your body is making the antibodies for gluten. Harvard Health Letter has more information on this.
I see gluten everywhere
Gluten is ubiquitous in foods: pasta, cereal, pizza, breads, muffins, holiday cookies, etc. However, there are some great gluten-free alternatives and stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Safeway are starting to carry more gluten-free products.
Gluten free products are often made with alternative flours such as rice and potato. A favorite product of mine is Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix. I have made some delicious gluten free banana bread and even my favorite buttery melt in your mouth russian teacakes!
So while research continues and new discoveries found, I’ll still be cooking up my holiday favorites for family and friends. And experimenting with gluten-free alternatives so that I, too, may enjoy those prohibited sweets.