In recent years, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about gluten. Many people are going gluten-free, to help solve everything from fatigue to skin problems to digestive issues, even brain fog.
These people may be considered gluten sensitive.
But there is a smaller group of people for whom eating a gluten-free diet can be a literal lifesaver. For those folks, eating even one crouton could result in serious health complications.
Only about one in 100 people suffer with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten is consumed.
These people must avoid a host of food products, starting with bread and cereal, but also including salad dressings, ice cream, energy bars, canned beans and ketchup, just to name a few.
Non-food products contain gluten, too, like shampoos, cosmetics and many vitamin supplements. There are at least twenty “code names” for gluten that appear on labels, so avoiding it can be really challenging.
The causes of autoimmune conditions remain unclear. For this reason, science has looked to environmental factors as possible triggers.
In the case of celiac disease, recent research is pointing a finger at a food additive you’ve probably never heard of…
An unnatural copy of a natural substance
Transglutaminase is an enzyme created in our bodies naturally. Its purpose is to bind proteins together. This is necessary in the formation of blood clots, as well as the formation of skin and hair.
Microbial transglutaminase is a bacterial enzyme that is used in the industrial processing of meat, dairy and baked goods. Its purpose is also to bind proteins together, giving products a better texture and longer shelf life.
Microbial transglutaminase is also known as “meat glue,” since butchers use it to bind different cuts and scraps of meat together.
A recent study indicates that the rise in celiac disease in recent years could be tied to the use of this chemical.
“Meat glue” contains hidden gluten
According to Dr. Aaron Lerner, co-author of the study, there’s every indication that microbial transglutaminase could be the real target of the immune system’s attacks in people with celiac disease.
In the last four decades, there is a direct correlation between the use of industrial enzymes like microbial transglutaminase in baking products and the rise in cases of celiac disease.
Not really a surprise, when the FDA has classified “meat glue” products as GRAS, or “Generally Recognized as Safe.”
We know what that means.
The manufacturer has done their own tests (or not), and reported their product to be safe for us to eat, and the FDA has taken them at their word.
There are different forms of “meat glue.” For example, one Japanese company makes several different forms. Some are marketed under the name Activa.
One form of Activa is made specifically for binding not meat, but wheat pasta, and it does contain wheat, usually hidden behind the name “maltodextrin”. But not all people with celiac disease would know that “maltodextrin” equals “wheat.”
With all this unregulated “glue” being put into our foods, how are we to know whether we’re eating something we’d rather not? And how can a person with celiac disease know if they are about to eat something that will harm them?
The more additives, the more celiac disease
One part of Dr. Lerner’s study tested antibodies from the blood of celiac disease patients. It appeared that their antibodies were more likely to attack gluten fragments that were attached to transglutaminase than they were to attack gluten alone.
If this is the case, adding “meat glue” to the diet of a celiac patient, or a person whose genetic makeup predisposes them to develop it, is a really bad idea.
“Until there is a clearer answer, we recommend transparency and vigilance with regards to labeling of foods processed using microbial transglutaminase,” says Dr. Lerner.
He cites Switzerland as an example, where these products must be labeled as unsuitable for people with celiac disease.
This, of course, would require more vigilance from the FDA, which does not appear to be forthcoming.
How to avoid hidden gluten
Gluten is hidden everywhere, so avoiding it takes some diligence and planning.
The Celiac Disease Foundation offers a comprehensive guide to foods that are safe to eat.
If you are gluten sensitive, you can follow those guidelines as well, though accidentally ingesting gluten won’t be a serious as it is for someone with celiac. Still, because you want to avoid the miserable symptoms of gluten sensitivity as much as possible, you might find these tips helpful:
- Fruits and vegetables are safe bets, but read the labels of canned, frozen or dried fruits carefully, especially if they are sweetened.
- Avoid processed and ground meats, and opt for fresh meat and seafood. Nuts, legumes and soy products are good protein sources as well.
- Ice cream and most condiments probably contain gluten.