Why Gluten May Not Be The Bad Guy
Updated: May 19, 2021
By now, you’ve probably at least heard of going “gluten-free”. It’s becoming increasingly more common to find gluten-free meals at restaurants and fast food chains, to see a greater variety of gluten-free options at grocery stores (4 different brands of bread? Who are we, kings?), and to see more of an interest in the potential benefits (such as relief from joint pain, reduced digestive discomfort, and a reduction in PCOS symptoms) of omitting gluten from our diets.
To clarify things a bit, gluten is a protein that’s found in most grains – like rye, barley, wheat, kamut, and spelt – which means that it’s also found in the pastas, breads, crackers, cereals, and flours that are made from those grains. Gluten also crops up in all-purpose flour, which is made from wheat, and in the various desserts (like cookies, cakes, cupcakes, pastries, muffins, and cinnamon buns) that include it in their recipes. In addition, gluten is also found in beer, which, unless it's explicitly gluten-free, is made from barley and sometimes wheat as well. On top of that, gluten often finds its way into other foods because wheat is a common added ingredient in processed foods, ending up in products like candy, gravy, soy sauce, soup, salad dressing, and foods coated in breading such as chicken fingers and fish fillets.
As you can see, cutting gluten out of the diet is a pretty big ask - but one that can be totally worth it for someone who finds that consuming it causes pronounced, painful bloating, intense abdominal pain, or significantly worse menstrual cramps, to name a few.
But here’s the thing – gluten may not be the ingredient that actually needs to go.
Because, while some people genuinely do react to the protein found in gluten, some (like myself) may actually find that their issue is with the protein in wheat instead. This means that while eliminating gluten automatically eliminates wheat as well (and thus ensures that they'll find symptom relief), it can also be overly restrictive. For example, while I still need to avoid most breads, most pastas, and anything made from all-purpose flour, I can eat 100% rye bread, barley cereal, and drink beer as long as wheat doesn't show up anywhere on the ingredients list.
Honestly most of the time, this distinction doesn't make much of a difference, because most of the gluten-containing products in our diets come from wheat. It's rare to find a food or drink that only contains barley or rye, and it's also more practically useful to say gluten-free because that's the term everyone else is using - I always say I'm gluten-free at restaurants because I know there's a better chance the servers and kitchen staff will know what I'm talking about.
However, there are situations when the distinction between wheat and gluten is important, because it can open up more dietary possibilities, and one of those is when it comes to beer. There are actually a surprising number of beers out there that do not contain wheat - including popular brands like Corona, Guinness, Heineken, and Bud Light. Often the issue is that ingredients won't be listed on the side of the can, or they won't be specific enough to ensure the beer is wheat-free (it needs to read "barley malt" to be safe, and often only "malt" is listed, which means it could contain other grains, including wheat). But I've been increasingly surprised by how many beers it's actually safe for me to drink - my partner's dad is a craft beer fanatic and I was recently able to try some of his favourite brands with no risk of hypersensitivity reactions.
Maybe it comes as a surprise that I'm writing a blog post about beer when I'm a holistic nutritionist, but I'm a firm believer that food - and drinks - are meant to be enjoyed, and as someone who's struggled with disordered eating, I also think that it's important to avoid dietary restrictions that aren't absolutely necessary to health and well-being (such as avoiding spending an evening in the fetal position after coming into contact with wheat). There are also some hormone balance advantages to responsible beer consumption, such as choosing a lower-sugar option compared to some mixed drinks, benefiting from the probiotic cultures that are present in local beers from microbreweries, and often in taking a moment to relax and take a break from the daily stresses of life.
Before you crack open that six-pack of Heineken in the fridge, it's important to note that some people genuinely do find the culprit behind their food reactions is gluten and that they may feel their best avoiding barley, rye, and other gluten-containing grains as well as wheat. This is especially important for anyone who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, in which the body attacks (and can cause substantial damage to) the intestinal lining every time they come in contact with even very small amounts of gluten. It's important to proceed with caution, to run any potential dietary changes by your healthcare practitioner (especially if you've had any diagnostic testing done that can determine the root cause of an issue), and to read food labels very carefully to make sure they're completely free of your eliminated foods. Also note that if you are extremely sensitive to wheat, it would be a good idea to contact brands of beer you're interested in trying to ask about potential cross-contamination, but so far I haven't experienced any issues with wheat free-beer.
So while gluten-free is still the best option for some people, for others, there may be more dietary options out there than you'd realized, and I wanted to share this information in case that's the case for you. Making the decision to eliminate a food - especially one as prevalent in the North American diet as wheat - can be pretty overwhelming, and it's important to know just how many options you still do have, especially if it means being able to enjoy a Guinness in an old Irish pub in Boston, which is when I snapped the picture above.
So if you're thinking about enjoying some green beer tonight at home for St Pat's, you just might be able to, gluten and all.
Please note that this information is for educational purposes only and it not intended to diagnose or treat disease.
Digestive Wellness, 4th Edition by Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, CCN, CHN
Gluten-Free Fast-Food Restaurants - Canada.
Guinness Draught Can: Ingredients List.
Is Corona A Gluten-Free Beer? by Robin Hutchinson, MNT
Meet The Fam
Three Natural Ingredients
What is Gluten?
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