Food and Inflammation Series: Is Gluten Inflammatory?

Food and Inflammation Series: Is Gluten Inflammatory?

What we eat has long been recognized to impact our health – most notably, our risk for diet-related chronic diseases. More recently, the conversation surrounding how dietary choices are related to developing chronic inflammation has become a hot area in preventative nutrition. In this series, we will take a closer look at how some dietary factors are related to inflammation, starting with gluten.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural process in the body and refers to the immune system’s response to an irritant. This is how the body protects and heals itself. If you have ever had a paper cut or burned your tongue on a hot cup of coffee, the process of healing the wound is the inflammatory response in action. These are examples of acute inflammation, which is a relatively short-lived response to injury, irritation, and/or infection. Acute inflammation can be brought on by infectious factors like bacteria or viruses, non-infectious factors like injuries and chemicals, or psychological factors like stress or excitement.

In contrast, chronic inflammation is a long-term physiologic response that can last anywhere from weeks to years. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is not always visible to the naked eye. It can be brought on by a number of factors, including autoimmune conditions, chronic stress, long-term exposure to pollutants, physical inactivity and certain dietary exposures. The constantly activated inflammatory response creates destructive reactions that damage cells and are linked to increased risk of conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and certain cancers.

The Connection between Food and Inflammation

Inflammation is a complicated process; the connection between food and inflammation is still being researched. Some research shows that certain nutrients like vitamin E, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants like polyphenols can reduce inflammation. Diets that are high in refined starches, sugar, saturated and artificial trans fats, and low in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with increased inflammation in the body. However, it is important to be clear, food choices alone are unlikely to solve chronic inflammation.

One food component that is often accused of increasing inflammation in our bodies is gluten. Let’s take a look at the validity of that claim.

What is Gluten?

Gluten refers to a complex of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale which is a cross between wheat and rye. When wheat flour combines with water like when making bread, the kneading process creates a gluten protein network. This gives structure and elasticity to the dough, allowing it to be made into bread and other wheat products.

Sources of Gluten

Foods made with wheat, barley, and rye are the main sources of gluten in our diets. These include:

  • Wheat: Breads, baked goods, soup, pasta, cereals, sauces, salad dressings
  • Barley: Malt, food coloring, soups, beer, brewer’s yeast
  • Rye: Rye bread, rye beer, cereals

Gluten is also used as an additive in processed foods to improve texture and flavor and to retain moisture. This means gluten can be found in unexpected food products as an ingredient in processed meat, imitation seafood and meat substitutes like seitan. It can also be used as a thickener, emulsifier or gelling agent in candy, ice cream, butter, seasonings, marinades, dressings and even in coatings in medications.

Some naturally gluten-free foods – oats, for example, may come into contact with gluten during processing. Because of this potential for cross-contamination, it’s recommended to look for a gluten-free label on packaged foods to make sure the product is truly gluten-free. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration defines gluten-free” as less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of detectable gluten.

How is Gluten Connected to Inflammation?

Most people consume foods containing gluten without incident. In fact, many gluten-containing foods – like certain kinds of whole grains,– have been associated with reducing inflammation. So, this means that gluten doesn’t cause inflammation for everyone.

However, some people experience adverse effects after eating gluten due to certain health conditions, and this is where inflammation comes into play. These health conditions are outlined here:

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where consuming gluten damages the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, an immune response is triggered, leading the immune cells to attack the small intestine. Since the small intestine is where most nutrient absorption occurs, damage to these cells results in a reduced ability to absorb nutrients from food. If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to significant health problems, ranging from vitamin and mineral deficiencies to nervous system disorders and gastrointestinal cancers.

Celiac disease is a hereditary condition, meaning that it runs in families. Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is adhering to a strict gluten-free diet. Eating even small amounts of gluten can lead to further small intestine damage.

Wheat Allergy

Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to specific gluten proteins called gliadin. The onset of symptoms can take minutes to hours to develop and include itching, swelling, skin rash, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis. Most cases are found in children, the majority of which no longer report symptoms by age 6. It is often diagnosed through a skin prick test and/or a blood test. Managing a wheat allergy involves avoiding wheat in foods and non-food products with wheat-based ingredients, including some cosmetics.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition characterized by symptoms linked to gluten consumption that promotes a chronic inflammatory state. People with NCGS do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, but often report similar symptoms and respond well to a gluten-free diet. As with celiac disease, exposure to gluten triggers an immune response and inflammation.

Should I Go Gluten-Free?

If you experience noticeable discomfort after consuming gluten, consult your doctor to try to find out the cause of your symptoms. If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, a wheat allergy or NCGS, you will need to pay more attention to the ingredients list and look for “gluten-free” labels on foods and beverages. Learning more about the sources of gluten in your diet will help you reduce inflammation and manage your symptoms.

For most people, gluten does not cause inflammation and there is no need to avoid it. Many gluten-containing foods should be eaten as part of a healthy diet and may reduce inflammation in the body. Additionally, many gluten-free alternatives on the market differ in their nutrient content, so they may not contain the same amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals found in a gluten-containing version. Lastly, a gluten-free label doesn’t make a food healthier – it’s still important to read Nutrition Facts labels to find foods that work for you.

We still have a lot to learn about the connection between foods and inflammation.

Find out more about the basics of an anti-inflammatory diet here.

This article includes contributions by Debbie Fetter, PhD.