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What is gluten?

Gluten-free diet menus are all the rage, and high-profile stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham have been linked to the gluten-free diet lifestyle, which is said to contribute to increased energy, slimmer thighs, and reduced belly bloat. But what exactly is gluten?

Gluten is the name of the protein present in wheat, rye and barley. When we bake or cook with these grains, the gluten serves to give our food that extra dimension that many of us like - it makes pizza dough stretchy, gives bread its spongy texture, and helps to thicken sauces and soups.

Foods that contain gluten include bread and baked goods, pizza, french fries, pasta, soups, sauces and some vitamins, supplements and medications.

To people with a chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, gluten needs to be avoided. Their bodies regard even a tiny morsel of it as a foreign invader, resulting in an immune response. This immune reaction ends up damaging the small intestine, which causes both great gastrointestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies. If untreated, these responses can cause other complications such as intestinal cancers, infertility and osteoporosis.

The Celiac Disease Foundation advises anyone with gluten intolerance to check labels carefully as gluten is often hidden or present in unexpected ways.

There are now lots of gluten-free products available for those who wish to avoid it.

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