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What Does It Mean to Be Gluten-Free?

The term “gluten-free” has (quite fortunately!) started to become more mainstream. But what exactly does this term mean? Who does it refer to? What many people don’t know is that there are many ways that someone can be gluten-free, namely through a wheat-allergy, a gluten intolerance, or celiac disease. So, this begs the question: what’s the difference between these three different types of being “gluten-free”?

Gluten is actually a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. As someone with a wheat allergy, I’ve avoided gluten my entire life. While I’m not allergic to gluten itself, a person with a wheat allergy generally has to avoid all foods containing gluten because most products that contain gluten also contain wheat. A wheat allergy is similar to any other food allergy. Having a wheat allergy means that your immune system will react if you consume wheat, triggering an allergic reaction.

Two other ways people can be gluten-free is from celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance, but these two conditions have a few differences. Celiac disease is when there is an autoimmune response to consuming gluten. This means that if someone with celiac has gluten, their system fights gluten like a virus, which causes stomach aches and inflammation. Celiac is caused by an abnormal gene, so it is usually genetic but can also develop overtime. People with celiac also have high levels of certain gluten-fighting antibodies.

A gluten-intolerance is different from celiac disease because people with an intolerance don’t have the gene or antibodies that those with celiac do, nor do their immune systems overreact to gluten like those with wheat allergies. Gluten-intolerances can be caused by a few possible different factors, such as lack of absorption of common carbs, but many of the causes are still unclear.

So, no, the term “gluten-free” on an item in the grocery store is not just for show: having more gluten-free awareness and gluten-free food creates a more inclusive world for people who have wheat allergies, celiac disease, or a gluten-intolerance. Over the past few years, I’ve been thrilled to find some delicious gluten-free options that are easily accessible. Some of my personal favorites are Schar White Bread, MadeGood Granola Bites, and Oreos’ gluten-free version of their signature cookie (try the Double Stuf!). It’s important to understand the difference between wheat allergies, celiac disease, and gluten-intolerance to understand how important gluten-free food products are for those of us with these conditions. Even if you don’t have to avoid gluten, it’s always nice to look into gluten-free options for friends who do. Gluten-free options are just as tasty, and so many brands are now coming out with more fabulous alternatives as being “gluten-free” becomes more mainstream.


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