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Is gluten-free the way to be?

From restaurants to food packaging, it is difficult to escape the gluten-free craze that is sweeping the country. Whether as their own dietary preference or for a specific health reason, many people are eschewing gluten products and leaving other people wondering if they should, too.

Gluten is a type of protein that is found in grain products, including wheat, barley and rye, among other carbohydrates. Not all cereals and grains contain gluten, so it's important to note that gluten and grain are not synonymous. Gluten is not the grain itself, but a component that gives certain grain products their chewy, bending texture. It's also what contributes to the rising process of doughs brought on through the kneading of the dough. Gluten is tough, which is why doughs and bagels containing gluten have a dense, thick composition. Products that have gluten removed tend to be sticky and goopy in consistency and without shape.

Individuals with a condition called celiac disease cannot properly digest gluten. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, celiac disease is an immune disease in which people cannot eat gluten because it will damage their small intestine. The disease is hereditary and, despite millions of confirmed cases, many more people are unaware that they even have celiac disease.

Many other people do not suffer from celiac disease but do experience sensitivity to gluten-containing products -- everything from gastrointestinal discomfort to migraines and fatigue. According to experts from the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, much still remains unknown about gluten sensitivity, but it is clear that gluten sometimes triggers an immune response like an enemy invader in some people today. As a result, many find that avoiding gluten helps mitigate symptoms.

Although there are people who have legitimate reasons to avoid gluten, many are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon simply because they believe gluten could be something evil lurking in their foods. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine may be at the root of this newfound fear of gluten. The paper advised that several diseases may have a root cause with gluten. Some of these diseases include:

* irritable bowel syndrome

* cancer

* rheumatoid arthritis

* anxiety and depression

* dementia

* epilepsy

* canker sores

* anemia

The trouble with healthy people removing gluten from their diets is that it can cause some deficiencies. The body actually requires grains to receive the daily recommended value of certain vitamins and nutrients. These include calcium, riboflavin, folate, thiamin, iron, and fiber. Gluten, being a protein, is also a viable protein source for the body. Individuals who are vegetarians often get protein through legumes and grains. Adopting a gluten-free diet in addition to being vegetarian removes another protein source.

While there is no actual danger to eating gluten-free, doctors advise ensuring you're getting the adequate vitamins and nutrients through other sources to compensate for the lack of nutritional value from grains.

Those adopting a gluten-free diet should be careful to read product ingredients to determine if gluten is present. While key words like wheat, oats, barley, and rye indicate gluten, malt and hydrolyzed vegetable protein are also indicators that gluten is in the food.

Although most traditional breads are off-limits to those with gluten sensitivity, there are many products being marketed mainstream that are made with rice or potato flour instead. Cereals made from corn and rice are good alternatives to those made with gluten-containing grains. Traditional pastas are also off-limits. People can try substituting rice noodles for wheat noodles in recipes.

Gluten is not exclusive to foods, either. Beer contains wheat, so it will also have gluten. Choose wines or other liquors instead. Also, some products, like lip balm, also contain gluten. Therefore, it's best to be aware of all gluten sources and not assume it is only relegated to foods.

Although many people are adopting gluten-free lifestyles, removing the protein from your diet is only medically necessary at this point if you suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.