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What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein compound found in grains like wheat, barley, oats and rye; and foods made with those gluten-containing grains. The word “gluten” is Latin for “glue”, which is basically what the gluten protein does. It acts as a glue to hold together the other compounds and nutrients in the grains. For example, gluten holds together and gives elasticity to doughs, helping them to rise and to keep their shape. Gluten gives breads, pasta, pastries, etc. a chewy texture and makes that bowl of oatmeal all sticky. 


Gluten is popular with vegans as a source of vegetable protein and is frequently found in vegetarian meat-substitute products. Seitan, also known as “wheat-meat”, is typically pure wheat gluten. It becomes surprisingly similar to the look and texture of meat when cooked, making it a popular meat substitute that rivals tofu in many vegetarian foods.


Digestion & Gluten

We can’t slap a carrot on our arm when we get hungry. We have breakdown our foods into useable parts. This involves a number of processes such as chewing, acid in the stomach, and a host of enzymes; some of which are made by glands in our mouth and others which are made in the villi of our intestines. Enzymes, especially the ones made in the small intestines, are much like specialized bank accounts with which we are born. Ideally, we would eat a variety of foods which would only require using small amounts of each of the specific enzymes from our digestive ‘bank accounts’ and then allow those accounts to build up again. When we eat the same food or foods in every meal, day after day, week after week, we deplete our enzyme banks. If that bank account gets low enough, our body can lose the ability to make that particular enzyme altogether. We then develop conditions like “lactose intolerance”, leaky gut syndrome, iritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), food allergies, etc.  In order to breakdown gluten, we need several enzymes which are made by the villi in the small intestines. In wheat and other related grains, the combination of proline and glutamine form a gluten compound called “gliadin”, which can be especially complicated to breakdown. While this can help make us feel full longer, it can also place high demands on the enzymes needed for digesting it. When those villi lose the ability to make the enzymes for gluten, it is labeled as “gluten intolerance”or “Celiac’s Disease”. Prior to the last few decades, it was usually called “sprue”.


Because gluten is an inexpensive and easily made protien, it is frequently used as a cheap way to increase protien and/or nutrition values in overly processed foods with low nutritional content. Therefore, wheat gluten has become a popular ingredient in a large number of foods where one would not expect to find gluten such as ketchup, hotdogs, ice cream, lunchmeats, fruit juices, salad dressings, and soup broths. The majority of those convenient foods for babies and toddlers are loaded with it. The cheap supplements and vitamins from places like Walmart® are often loaded with it. All this gluten in our foods has created an ever increasing number of people, especially small children, who suffer from gluten sensitivity of one kind or another, which has led to some foods now being labeled as “gluten free”. However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified gluten as “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe), and does not currently require gluten to be listed on the labels of foods which naturally contain gluten. This makes identifying gluten in various products difficult for people dealing with a gluten problem. In addition, many pet foods are loaded with wheat gluten and due to those current labeling laws in the United States, this grain based protien can simply be labeled as “protien”, “protein isolate” or “vital amino acids” on the pet food package, leading to a number of health problems for our cats and dogs as well.


In the late 1800’s “sprue” was considered only to be an occasional condition, affecting roughly 1 of every 2900 people. Today, 1 of every 105 people are being diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease and 1 out of every 8 or more people are suspected to have some form of sprue/ gluten intolerance. The number of those with sprue varies widely, depending upon which studies you look at, but one thing is certain: the numbers are MUCH higher than they were just a century ago! The culprit is all those convenient but highly processed foods full of cheap gluten and gluten-containing grains.


Symptoms of Celiac’s include chronic diarrhea, weight loss, and exhaustion. A bumpy rash on the arms and legs is common as well. The symptoms of gluten overload/sensitivity are many.  As the villi become overwhelmed with the demands of too much gluten, they flatten and create changes in the bowel that make it less able to absorb other nutrients, minerals and vitamins, particularly the fat-soluable vitamins A, D, E, and K.  The following are all possible conditions arising from a gluten overload in the bowels:



Abnormal blood clotting or bleeding issues

Acid stomach


Allergies – both food allergies and environmental allergies


Autoimmune  disorders – especially those involving the digestive tract, liver, thyroid or skin

Bacterial infections



Diabetes/metabolic syndrome


Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Irritable Bowel Syndrome



Hair loss


“Failure to Thrive” in infants and small children

Liver problems, including fatty liver and/or cirrhosis

Lowered immune system

Memory problems

Muscle weakness

Osteoporosis/ Osteopenia

Peripheral neuropathy – nerve pain

Post nasal drip


Rhuematoid arthritis



Thyroid problems

Weight problems – Celiac’s typically have weight loss, Gluten overload can cause obesity or weight loss

Yeast Infections

Some recent, though controversial studies, have also linked gluten intolerance to schizoprenia, manic depression and spectrum disorders like alzheimers and some forms of autism.


What to do about it

Basically, if it comes in a bottle, can, or box, there is a 90% chance that it contains some form of gluten. So, eating a variety of fresh foods (like fruits, vegetables, raw nuts and seeds) is the best way to reduce our exposure to too much gluten and replenish our enzyme bank accounts. Not to mention a whole host of other benefits like reducing the risk of cancers, allergies, arthritis, inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease. Other gluten free options are millet, rice, lentils and quinoa or buckwheat (which is not really wheat). 


A good homeopath or naturopath can also make a homepathic remedy to help repair the damage done to the villi by consuming too much gluten.  We also often use specific enzyme supplements to replenish the bowel “banks” with the materials needed to make those enzymes again. While this does not mean that we will be able to eat gluten at every meal, the combination of the homeopathic with the enzymes can allow us eat the occasional gluten food and not pay the price of all those symptoms for hours or even days afterwards. My family takes the enzyme from time to time to help prevent developing sprue, especially if we have been eating a lot of gluten containing foods. (Like during the holidays when there seems to be a large amount of cookies, pies, etc.. everywhere we go!)


You can make your own gluten-free salad dressing by mixing equal parts vinegar and oil and add a few of your favorite spices or herbs like lemon peel, garlic granules, basil, or thyme, or add a sqeeze of fresh citrus to it like lemon or lime and a pinch of sea salt.  Watch out for Balsamic Vinegars, many of them have gluten added. Stick to white or apple cider vinegars.


Happy Baby, an organic company that makes a variety of healthy foods for babies and toddlers has plenty of tasty gluten-free options including foods that contain lentils (also sometimes called “dhal”), mung beans, and quinoa (also sometimes called “the mama grain”).


We also have a new gluten free company making tasty products right here in Michigan. While it is easy to make gluten free goodies at home, unfortunately, most of the gluten-free products on the supermarket shelves taste awful.  Frustrated that good tasting gluten-free wheat-substitute products were so far and few between, Lynette and Paul of Plaid Cat Baking in Alanson started experimenting with gluten free recipes. Their chickens got rather fat eating all their failed experiments J,   but they now make a number of easy to make delicious gluten-free products from cookie mixes to bread & pizza crust mixes and pancake mixes.  (Their chocolate chip cookies are out of this world!  We shared them with several people and they never guessed that they were gluten-free.)  You can find Plaid Cat and their products on the web at



Think you or a family member may have a gluten issue and want to know more? We are offering a class all about gluten this month. We will discuss how to spot foods that may contain gluten, how to make quick and easy gluten free meals, and we will screen everyone who attends for gluten sensitivities.  Paul and Lynette from Plaid Cat will also be providing samples of their yummie products


The class is 6:00pm to 8:30pm Monday February 21, 2011 at the Hummingbird Health Offices.  Cost is  $10.00 per person and limited to 20 people.



In the meantime, here is one of our favorite recipes for an easy-to-make, tasty, gluten-free meal:


Quinoa Lentil Casserole


1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed

1 cup vegetable stock

2 cups water

1 cup lentils

1 small squash, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 TBS olive oil

1 ½ tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried rosemary

½ tsp dried thyme

1 tsp sea salt

½ tsp curry (optional)

1 tsp garam masala (optional)

1 twelve oz package frozen vegetables


Preheat oven to 400.

Rub down a glass casserole dish with 2 tsp of the olive oil

Add all the remaining ingredients to the dish and stir them together to mix. Bake for about 1 hour. The quinoa should be cooked and the liquid should be absorbed.


Cooking tips:

The quinoa is cooked when you can see the little white thread around the seed.


Don’t forget to thuroughly rinse the quinoa. It naturally produces a soap-like coating that needs to be rinsed before cooking. Otherwise, your casserole will have a soapy flavor.



You can use brown rice instead of the quinoa. However the quinoa is higher in protien and a better choice if you have any blood sugar issues.




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