These days, you don't have to look hard to find someone who is cutting gluten out of their diet.
This has caused a big controversy about whether or not gluten is harmful, with a lot of misinformation being spouted on both sides of the argument.
But what the heck is gluten, anyway? Why does anyone care about it?
Luckily for us, TED-Ed has produced a lesson called "What's the big deal with gluten?" to clear up any lingering questions about this mysterious substance.
Gluten is a combination of two proteins predominantly found within three grains: wheat, barley, and rye. This means that consuming foods with these grains, such as bread, pasta, and beer, introduces gluten into the digestive system.
For some, eating gluten is a really big deal.
Around 1 percent of the American population suffers from Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which gluten consumption causes the body's native defenses to attack the lining of the intestines. Not only does this affect how food is absorbed, but it can also cause a host of disorders, including cancer.
Additionally, some people have an allergy to wheat. Like other severe allergies, some of those who suffer from this run the risk of life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
For these people, merely giving up eating wheat isn't enough. Cross contact with cooking utensils and dishes that have touched wheat-containing foods also poses a risk. For some the risk of adverse reactions is so severe they must avoid using anything that has so much as touched food that contains gluten, requiring designated toasters, pans, and other cookware to prepare save meals.
For others, consuming wheat isn't life threatening, but it still produces undesirable symptoms.
Especially those with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis, gluten can have negative effects that lead to gastrointestinal distress, bloating, and inflamed tissues. It isn't clear what causes this to occur, but it might have to do with other parts of the wheat and possibly not the gluten itself. Therefore, TED-Ed reasons, a more accurate name for this condition would be "wheat intolerance" rather than "gluten sensitivity."
Those who are cutting gluten and wheat out of their diets for reasons other than allergies or celiac disease do not need to worry about their dishes having cross contact with wheat-containing food.
Unfortunately, those who have given up gluten to accommodate a non-celiac wheat intolerance have had a hard time being taken seriously, because there isn't a lot known on the issue. There aren't reliable tests to determine non-celiac sensitivities, so the true numbers are not clear.
Adding to the controversy, a highly-publicized study in 2014 claimed that wheat intolerance doesn't actually exist. But critics note that there were a number of flaws in the study's design, making it hard to say anything conclusive.
Yes, some people don't actually have a sensitivity to wheat at all but may think they do.
For these people, merely believing that gluten is harmful is enough to make them feel better about not eating it. This phenomenon is called the "nocebo effect" and is essentially the converse of the placebo effect, where people report alleviated symptoms even though they didn't actually receive real medication.
While there's generally no harm in eschewing gluten, spreading the false belief that wheat is unsafe for everyone just adds to the already staggering amount of dietary pseudoscience out there.
Learn more about dietary gluten here:
[H/T: TED Ed]