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Celiac Disease and Gluten-Free Diets

Posted: May 16, 2015

May is National Celiac Disease Awareness Month. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the presence of gluten causes the immune system to trigger an attack on the intestines...

It can damage the small intestine and interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food. Left untreated, people with celiac disease can develop further complications such as other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer.

     According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, 1 in 100 people are estimated to be affected by the disease worldwide. Currently, the only treatment is to follow a gluten-free diet.

     Gluten is a protein found in barley, rye, and wheat. Gluten functions to form a sticky protein that provides elasticity and structure to baked goods. Some oats also contain gluten. If oats are gluten-free, it will be indicated on the package label.

Some common sources of gluten include:

  • Breads
  • Cereal products
  • Cookies, cakes and other baked goods
  • Crackers
  • Croutons
  • Flour
  • Pastas
  • Stuffings and dressings

     A gluten-free diet can present challenges but can be overcome with careful and thorough food label reading.  Check labels for both ingredient listings and “gluten-free” claims. If a product bears a “gluten-free” claim, it is considered to have met the FDA regulations of less than 20 ppm gluten and should be safe to eat. Manufacturers can change ingredients at any time so read labels every time you purchase foods.

     If following a gluten-free diet, choose naturally gluten-free grains and flours, including rice, cassava, corn (maize), soy, potato, tapioca, beans, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, arrowroot, amaranth, teff, flax, chia, yucca, and nut flours. Also select naturally gluten-free foods like: unprocessed fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables; meats, poultry, pork, fish and seafood; eggs; beans; plain nuts and seeds; and plain, unflavored dairy products.

     People who prepare both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods in the same kitchen must avoid cross-contact of these foods. Cross-contact (gluten-free foods that touch gluten foods) can happen when using the same cutting boards, deep fryers, pans, or serving utensils for both products without cleaning between uses. It can also happen if hands are not properly washed after handling gluten products and before working with gluten-free foods. To prevent cross contact, wash hands often, clean counter tops and cutting boards often to remove gluten containing crumbs, and wash cook utensils, knives, pans, grills, thermometers, cloths, and sponges carefully after each use and before cooking gluten-free foods.

Karen Thomas is a family and consumer sciences educator for Penn State Extension in Lackawanna County.