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What you need to know about gluten

You're likely to see many foods labeled as "gluten-free" as you're walking the aisles of any grocery store. So what is gluten, and do we need to avoid it?

The truth is, most of us don't. 

Gluten is a naturally present protein found in several types of grains, including wheat, barley and rye. The gluten protein helps give the grain its shape. Gluten is what gives bread and other doughs its stickiness and stretchiness. Many foods are made using gluten-containing grains such as cereal, bread, pasta and crackers. Other foods—like soy sauce, processed meats, sauces, gravies and dressings—often use gluten as a stabilizer. 

People who have celiac disease, a gastrointestinal disorder, experience an autoimmune response to gluten. This response can cause intestinal damage when ingesting even a small amount of gluten. Celiac disease is present in about one to two percent of the U.S. population.

Gluten sensitivity is a bit more common, estimated to affect six to 10 percent of the population. Gluten sensitivity can cause:

  • abdominal pain
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • chronic fatigue
  • headaches
  • skin rashes  

Talk with your provider if you think you may have gluten sensitivity. You may be referred to a registered dietitian who can help you develop a healthy eating plan that avoids gluten.

The fact is that foods labeled as gluten-free are not more nutritious than their gluten-containing counterparts. If you don't have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you can safely include whole grains and whole-grain products as part of your balanced diet.

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