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Why is gluten-free food becoming so popular in India?

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It is common to come across food labels promoting the benefits of gluten-free options and read about celebrities following a gluten-free lifestyle. This trend has led many people to adopt a gluten-free diet as a way to a healthy lifestyle, and either to gain or reduce the weight. This blog explores our understanding how most of the food that we eat today is the result of evolution in farming that happened few decades ago, resulting in gluten based food and how it has to come to a point where we are again going back to our traditional crops and promoting gluten-free food products.

How gluten became a common part of Indian cuisine? 

As part of Sonkan’s promotion, we have been doing advertorial programs on radio channels. Soon after the very first programme we received a call with a kind voice asking us about procurement of our products. We went on talking for a while after resolving her queries and got to realise that she was an eighty years old lady, extremely conscious about her health.
She congratulated us for promoting the use of millets and recalled her childhood when they used to eat nachnichi bhakri ( Ragi Roti) while wheat was reserved only for festivities, to make poori, fried bread or pooran poli, the sweet bread.
This actually got us thinking on how, when and why we abandoned our traditional grains and adopted wheat as our staple especially in the northern and central parts of India.
Digging into some credible online resources we were surprised to know that wheat has been present in India since the Harappan times. Although the variety of the wheat cultivated in those times was different from the one grown today! Despite of its existence for centuries, India was importing wheat till the green revolution happened. Farmers grew millets, along with rice, which formed the staple food for most parts of India.

The rise of wheat farming in India 

Green revolution in India ushered in the varieties of wheat that were giving much better yield than the millets. Thus, 1960s onwards, growing wheat became profitable as the yield per hectare of wheat was much higher than that of the millets. Eventually farmers started switching to produce wheat in place of traditional grains.
Besides the economics, wheat usage offers lot of convenience due to presence of gluten in it.  Gluten, a protein by nature, as the name indicates, acts as a glue, holding the food together and maintaining shape.
No wonder why all bakery products and many Indian fried foods like samosa, kachori, poori and many more require wheat as their main ingredient! It’s due to Gluten that the roti / chapati can be easily rolled in comparison to the roti made from millets which cannot be moulded alike.
As more people started carrying their lunch boxes to their work place, the preferred roti was the one made from wheat and not from millets! Today in many city households millet rotis are reserved for holidays or for special occasions only.
All purpose flour (maida) is wheat flour from which all the dietary fibers have been removed. Thus, maida gives more flexibility to the dough than does the whole wheat flour. Gluten makes about 75-85% of the total protein in bread wheat. Besides wheat, gluten is also found in barley, rye, in some varieties of oats as well as cross hybrids of these grains. However, the current scenario suggests that people are now opting to have a diet exclusive of gluten.

Benefits of a gluten-free diet 

It is important to understand that a gluten-free diet is necessary for individuals with celiac disease, a condition where gluten triggers an allergic reaction that damages the lining of the small intestine.
A gluten-free diet excludes the protein gluten, present in wheat, barley, and rye. This is specifically meant to manage celiac disease that causes inflammation in the small intestine of people who cannot tolerate gluten.
By adhering to a gluten-free meal plan, individuals with celiac disease can alleviate some of their symptoms like chronic diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, pale and foul-smelling stool, anemia, muscle and bone pain, joint pain, tingling numbness in the legs, delayed growth, fatigue, painful skin rash, missed menstrual periods (which is linked to excessive weight loss), and tooth discoloration or loss of enamel.

Why gluten suddenly became a villain? 

To understand the above question, lets dig dipper into what it does to our body system and the adverse effects of it.
Many studies confirm that gluten can trigger adverse inflammatory, immunological and autoimmune disorders in some people. Celiac disease is the most commonly known disorder caused by gluten.

The most common symptoms of the celiac disease are:

  • Frequent episodes of diarrhea or constipation
  • Losing weight unintentionally, without making any changes to your diet or exercise routine
  • Abdominal pain and bloating that come and go, often after eating gluten-containing foods
  • Excessive gas, which can cause discomfort and embarrassment
  • Stools that are pale, greasy, and have a foul odor
  • Low levels of iron in the blood, which can lead to fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath
  • Pain or cramps in the muscles and bones, especially in the legs and arms
  • Joint pain and stiffness, which can be mistaken for arthritis
  • Numbness or tingling in the legs, feet, or hands, which can indicate nerve damage
  • Slowed growth or development in children, which can affect their height and weight
  • Persistent tiredness or lethargy, even after getting enough rest
  • A red, itchy rash that appears on the skin, especially on the elbows, knees, and buttocks
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle, such as missed periods or abnormally light or heavy bleeding, which can be related to malnutrition
  • Discoloration or damage to the teeth, which can be a sign of enamel erosion and mineral deficiency.

Gluten causes the inflammation of the intestinal wall of people sensitive to it. This inflammation can progress into ulcers and affect absorption of nutrition form from food resulting in diarrhoea, weight loss and anemia.
Talking about the prevalence of this condition in the world, it’s only 1%. However that may mean that many are undiagnosed as they are unaware that such a condition exists. Many people treat their symptoms symptomatically. Meaning, they are treated for hyperacidity, bloating etc. Rather than unearthing the real cause, they rely on short term relief.
We know people who didn’t know that they had celiac disease till they were in their 30s. But as they say, better late than never. Turning to a gluten free diet has immensely helped change their life. According to the available literature, the number of people will increase four fold in 20 years. Prevalance of this condition is certainly more in northern India, wheat being their staple food, but even southern states of India are reporting the incidences of celiac disease.
Presence of certain specific genes determine if you are gluten intolerant or not. Thus if you always feel bloated and suffer from indigestion, stomach pain etc., you must get yourself diagnosed for celiac disease. Thanks to many gluten free options now available, switching to a gluten free diet shouldn’t be a problem unlike a decade back when it was inconceivable to avoid wheat from your diet especially for those living in northern India.
Celiac disease may be misdiagnosed as other digestive conditions such as irritable bowel disease (IBS). One report says reported cases of celiac disease are 3 times higher in women than in men. So going gluten free means you have to avoid wheat and all that is made from wheat.

List of food items made out of wheat:

  • Breads and baked goods (including cakes, cookies, and pastries)
  • Pasta
  • Cereals and granola
  • Beer
  • Croutons and breaded foods (such as chicken nuggets and fish sticks)
  • Sauces and gravies (such as soy sauce and teriyaki sauce)
  • Processed meats (such as hot dogs and sausages)
  • Salad dressings and marinades
  • Soups and bouillon cubes
  • Snack foods (such as crackers, pretzels, and popcorn)

In conclusion, while a gluten-free diet is essential for individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it has also become a trendy topic in the food industry and among health enthusiasts. So, the next time you encounter a gluten-free menu item or product, remember that it’s not just a passing trend, but an important dietary requirement for some individuals. You can experience our delicious gluten-free offerings without sacrificing taste or variety. So go ahead and give them a try – Let your taste buds (and your body) thank you for the delicious and healthy treat!

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