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Gluten sensitivity

By David Coory

Gluten is an elastic type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye that traps gases released from baking powder or yeast
and allows dough to rise. Bakers and millers regularly add extra gluten to flour to increase this rising, especially when making bread.

Some people (about one in 100) lack the necessary probiotics (gut bacteria) to digest gluten, this is referred to as celiac disease. There's currently no cure for celiac disease, most people follow a strict gluten-free diet to help them manage symptoms.

However, a far more common disorder is ‘gluten sensitivity’. Huge numbers of people feel unwell after eating foods containing gluten, yet don’t have celiac disease. This is why so many gluten-free foods are on sale everywhere.

Australian research into gluten sensitivity – a surprising find

Researchers have long suspected it’s not gluten, but the multiple sugars in wheat causing the problem of sensitivity. Some studies found that when gluten sensitive people are secretly given gluten-containing foods, symptoms did not appear.

An Australian research group in Melbourne, led by gastroenterologist Prof. Peter Gibson put gluten sensitive subjects on a diet free of both gluten and wheat fodmap sugars (fructans) until they felt better.

Later on when they gave some of these same subjects some gluten, they found that they did not react at all. When they then gave them wheat fodmap sugars the symptoms returned. This indicated that the problem was the fodmap sugars and not the gluten.

What are Fodmap sugars

Fodmap is an acronym for ‘fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols”.  These are carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that the body struggles to absorb.

Undigested fodmap sugars can cause fermentation in the gut, causing gas, bloating and often symptoms of irritable bowel such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, headaches, fatigue, rashes and joint pain.

Lack of the correct gut prebiotics and probiotics to digest the sugars (and probably also gluten) appear to be the problem.

According to Prof. Gibson, the fermentation by probiotic bacteria during a sourdough bread-rising process, reduces fodmap sugar levels. He estimates about 35% of Australians have intolerances to one or more fodmap sugars, and believes that thousands are on gluten-free diets without good reason.

Both prebiotics and probiotics needed for proper food digestion

Cures for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have long eluded doctors, however, new promising research is now homing in on probiotics and prebiotics. A prebiotic is a food that probiotic bacteria feed on in our gut – mostly food fibre and sugars from fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

Eight probiotics have now been identified as necessary to digest gluten in the gut, these are –  B. breve, B. longum, B. infantis, L. plantarum,  L. acidophilus, L. casei, L. bulgaricus, and S. thermophilus. 

I personally find this very interesting, because of the numerous reports from our customers who have previously suffered from gluten and other food allergies, prior to taking probiotics.

When taking a probiotic, it is very important that the sensitive probiotics are protected from the stomach acid as only a few can make it through the low pH level of the stomach.  A common way to maximise the level of probiotics that reach the gut unscathed is to enteric coat the capsule.  But the more modern approach is to use a capsule of probiotics, suspended inside another capsule filled with prebiotics.  This outer capsule protects the probiotics and provides a perfect food source for the probiotics when the inner capsule opens in the small intestine.

 I would bet that if you took a dozen people who claimed gluten intolerance and you gave them sourdough bread, they’d be fine. 

Michael Pollan Nutritional journalist