Does your diet leave you feeling ill, despite your best efforts to eat healthily? The problem might be that your food isn’t as problem-free as it appears. For those with a sensitivity to gluten, even trace amounts of the substance can lead to stomach problems. To see whether your diet is affecting your digestion, it’s a good idea to determine whether there are gluten imposters in your food.
What is Gluten?
“Gluten” is a term that encompasses two families of proteins: gliadins and glutenins. While most of us can consume these compounds without problems, about one in four people are sensitive to them and experience inflammation from ingestion. As the symptoms of gluten sensitivity can be subtle and confused with other conditions, many people go for years without realizing that gluten is causing their health problems.
For some people, gluten can produce severe abdominal distress. One possible reason for this can be due to celiac disease, an autoimmune disease where ingesting gluten compromises the functioning of the small intestine in ways that create chronic inflammation and irritation. For others, it can be a gluten intolerance or sensitivity – not as severe as celiac disease but can very troublesome for your digestive system and beyond. Beyond messing with digestion, a gluten intolerance can also lead to headaches, brain fog, joint and muscle pain, fatigue, and general skin problems. Though close to a quarter of the population suffers from the condition, almost 80 percent of those who have it go undiagnosed.
About Gluten Imposters
Gluten imposters are foods that you expect to be gluten-free but actually aren’t. For people with a food sensitivity or celiac disease, these foods can be the reason they feel sick while following an elimination diet. Is a gluten imposter impacting your health? Let’s look at some of the foods with hidden gluten to find out.
There’s are a lot of foods besides wheat that contain gluten in some capacity, so I’ve separated them into categories below.
While these grains are often considered to be safe gluten-free substitutes, the reality is that they contain different forms of the compound that can potentially trigger health problems in those with a sensitivity.
- Corn: This grain contains a form of gluten known as zein, and reports show that those with a gluten sensitivity will struggle to heal if they eat products that contain corn.
Sorghum: Sorghum contains kafarin, a type of gluten protein.
Rice: Rice contains orzenin, a gluten protein that is linked to colon inflammation. Another disadvantage? The grain is also occasionally high in toxic heavy metals.
Millet: This tiny grain contains a gluten protein known as panicin.
Though they’re commonly classified and used as grains, the foods on this list aren’t technically grains at all. Even so, they still contain gluten or can mimic its effects on those with a sensitivity.
- Quinoa: Studies show that certain proteins in quinoa can mimic gluten in your digestive system and trigger inflammation.
- Buckwheat: While buckwheat itself is free of gluten, the production process in Canada often leads to cross contamination.
- Amaranth: This rare grain is also at risk of contamination during production.
Foods with Hidden Gluten
Beyond gluten mimickers, there are plenty of foods that contain the compound unexpectedly. Below is a list of items to consider avoiding if you struggle with a sensitivity.
- Instant Coffee: While regular coffee is safe from gluten contamination, instant coffee brands often use it as a binding agent. However, drinking coffee can trigger digestive problems that are similar to a gluten sensitivity in some people, so you may want to consider a coffee alternative.
- Cream Soups: Canned, packaged, and fresh cream soups use a roux as a base ingredient- a blend of flour, butter, and heavy cream. This means that mushroom soup has more gluten within it than you expect.
- Soy Sauce: This salty condiment tends to include trace amounts of wheat, though that’s often omitted from the ingredients list (especially if it was manufactured abroad).
- Dairy Products: According to some reports, casein, a protein in dairy products, can mimic gluten and trigger inflammatory responses for those with a sensitivity. Reports show that 50 percent of those with celiac disease are also sensitive to casein, and the way dairy is processed can also lead to problems. For instance, milk is treated with an enzyme called microbial transglutaminase during processing that can trigger inflammatory responses in those with a gluten sensitivity.
- Ice Cream: This sweet treat can trip you up with its gluten content, especially if you get a flavour besides plain chocolate or vanilla. Read the ingredients carefully to know whether you’re safe.
- Salad Dressing: As gluten is often used as a thickening agent, it’s a common ingredient in a number of salad dressing formulas- especially creamy ones. To avoid exposure, it’s best to make your own oil-based dressing.
- Dietary Supplements: You may take nutritional supplements to balance out your nutrient levels, but many brands come with extra filler ingredients like starches, fillers, and binders that contain gluten. Unfortunately, these ingredients don’t legally need to be disclosed by the company, but it’s possible to find some supplements that are labeled as gluten-free.
- Potato Chips: Though some brands contain nothing more than potatoes, oil and salt, specially seasoned potato chips often contain gluten as a binding agent. Even if the compound wasn’t added to the chips intentionally, you might have problems with contamination in the manufacturing facility. Read the ingredients carefully and stick to reputable brands to skip unwanted exposure.
- Tomato Sauce: Most brands of tomato sauce contain gluten, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it referenced on the ingredients list. Your best bet is buying specialty gluten-free jars from a health food store.
- Candy: Your favourite sweets likely contain gluten, as hard candies tend to include it to bind the ingredients together while remaining chewy. Any indication of “natural flavour” on the ingredients list is a sign that it contains gluten in some capacity. If you’re craving candy anyways, it’s usually a safe bet to go with Xylitol candy, as it’s known for being gluten-free.
- Processed Meats: Sausages and deli meats of all kinds might have more gluten than you expect. Because grains cost less than meat, many manufacturers use them to bulk up their product. To stay 100% gluten-free, you’ll need to avoid all of these products (even if they’re listed as organic) and use meat products that don’t contain other ingredients.
Want a fuller list of potential gluten imposters in your life? This chart will help you out.
How to Tell If You Should Avoid Gluten
As food sensitivities are different than allergies, a traditional allergy test won’t tell you much about whether you have issues with gluten. That’s why the long-accepted way to see if you have a possible gluten sensitivity is to follow an elimination diet where you remove all traces of the compound from your food to see whether your symptoms disappear after a few months. As you likely realize, that’s a long, frustrating process that can easily go wrong.
Thankfully, new scientific breakthroughs make it possible to take gluten cross-reactivity tests to pinpoint more precisely what’s causing your digestive problems. If you believe you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, I highly recommend undergoing cross reactively testing. Many tests are available across North America, and they will look for the following compounds:
- IgA anti-gliadin antibodies
- IgG anti-gliadin antibodies
- IgA anti-endomysial antibodies
- Tissue transglutaminase antibody (IgA and IgG in questionable cases)
- Total IgA antibodies
- HLA DQ2 and DQ8 genotyping for celiac disease
Treat Your Gluten Intolerance at The Dempster Clinic: Center for Functional Medicine
If you’re struggling to lose weight, sleep better, improve your energy levels, lower your blood pressure, and even improve your skin complexion, you might benefit from cutting gluten out of your life (at least temporarily). Considering how common the compound is in your diets, you might be amazed at how healthy you feel without it.
For those with further questions about gluten sensitivities or who want to talk through the details in person, I welcome you to make an appointment with me at The Dempster Clinic: Center for Functional Medicine.
I am pleased to offer a Complimentary 15-minute Discovery Session for all potential patients. This session can take place over the phone or at the clinic in person. It provides an opportunity for you to learn more about the services I offer and how they can be of benefit to you.
Please schedule an appointment today! Your best health awaits.
Dr. John Dempster BSc., ND, FAAFM
The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine