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Consumer Reports: Does gluten deserve its bum rap?

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gluten-free! This stamp is all over the place, showing up on food products ranging from beer to burritos -- not to mention play dough for kids and treats for the dog. In fact, last year more than 1,300 new gluten-free products appeared in stores, according to international market research firm Mintel. That's partially because more restaurants (pizza parlors and some eateries in Disney World among them) are catering to the gluten-challenged. Consequently, "gluten" has become a bad word in nutrition circles, as "high-fructose corn syrup" did earlier. But does gluten deserve the bad rap? Consumer Reports answers questions about gluten.

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What is gluten, anyway? It's a protein found naturally in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is a binding agent that holds dough together as it bakes. For instance, corn bread crumbles because it does not have much gluten.

What's so bad about gluten? In recent years, doctors have grown increasingly aware of celiac disease, a gluten intolerance that damages the small intestine and affects its ability to absorb nutrients. Celiac disease was once considered a rare disorder, but now it's classified as common, affecting as many as one in 133 people.

About half of celiac sufferers have gastrointestinal complaints such as bloating, gas and diarrhea, and some even complain of chronic fatigue. The other half might have few or no symptoms even though they have the disease.

Though common, the disease remains undiagnosed in about 90 percent of those who have it. That is problematic because the disease can lead to infertility, osteoporosis, cancer and other complications. However, a lifelong diet free of gluten can heal the intestine and reduce those risks.

Who should go gluten-free? Certainly those with celiac disease should go gluten-free. Some who don't have the disorder say they feel better when they stop eating the protein. Others believe gluten has an effect on autism, multiple sclerosis and migraine headaches, so they steer clear for those reasons. However, CR couldn't find any conclusive proof that gluten affects those conditions.

Can eliminating gluten be unhealthy? Gluten-free products may lack B vitamins, iron and fiber, because manufacturers usually substitute corn, rice, potato and tapioca starches that don't have much of those nutrients. Further, gluten-free products are two to three times as expensive as their wheat counterparts and can be higher in calories, fat and carbohydrates.

If you're determined to try a gluten-free diet anyway, CR's advice is to read labels carefully and opt for products that contain grains that don't carry the protein, such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum and teff, and to use canola oil rather than palm oil.

Is there a way to save on gluten-free foods? Foods made with gluten substitutes can be costly. For the best prices, check the extensive gluten-free grocery listings at Amazon.com. Additionally, retailers such as Super Target and Costco carry an increasing array of gluten-free products. But you'll find even greater variety at natural- and health-food stores and at such sites as Glutenfree.com, Gluten-Free Mall (http://www.glutenfreemall.com) and Kinnikinnick (http://www.kinnikinnick.com).

Copyright 2009. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to ConsumerReportsHealth.org. More-detailed information -- including CR's ratings of prescription drugs, conditions, treatments, doctors, hospitals and healthy-living products -- is available to subscribers to that site.


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