By: Alex Chesney and Michele Davies, Nutrition Interns, North York General Hospital
Today at Canada Beef we’re going to tackle some issues surrounding celiac disease and a gluten-free diet. Some of you may be wondering how exactly this relates to beef. Surprisingly, it does! We’re going to address two main questions. First up, is the beef from cattle fed grains containing gluten safe to eat as part of a gluten free-diet? And secondly, what role does beef play in a healthy gluten-free lifestyle?
Is grain-fed beef safe for a gluten-free diet?
To get right to it, the answer is yes! You can safely consume grain-fed beef as part of a gluten-free diet. According to the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA), animal products do not contain gluten and are safe for consumption by those with celiac disease (1). It is well known that living with celiac disease means the elimination of all foods that contain gluten, most commonly found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, triticale and spelt grain varieties (for more information see the CCA website). So we understand why you may have questions regarding meat that comes from animals fed these products. Thankfully, based on the mechanism of digestion it would be impossible for animals to have gluten in their tissues. Keep reading to find out why!
Let’s begin with a little background information on gluten to understand its digestion. Gluten is a protein made up of smaller protein units called gliadin and glutenin (2). These proteins break down even further into components called amino acids. Amino acids are the individual building blocks used in various combinations to make up proteins. In fact, 20 amino acids exist in total. Human and animal bodies use these amino acids for a variety of functions such as making hormones, red bloods cells, and for building and repairing tissue and muscle (3). They are the building blocks of life!
It’s a fun fact that unlike humans, cows have four stomach compartments to help break down the roughage in their very high fiber diet. The rest of digestion is performed in the small and large intestine, similar to humans and other mammals (4). So, to understand protein digestion let’s picture a cow taking a bite of some barley, a gluten-containing feed. The cow swallows and the food begins to make its way into the cow’s digestive system. The proteins (like gluten!) begin to be broken down by the enzymes in the stomach. They are further broken down throughout small intestine until what remains is the smaller amino acid units. This is because whole proteins cannot be absorbed by the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. Rather, the gut can absorb only single amino acids units. By this time the initial proteins are unrecognizable. The gluten protein no longer exists!
Basically, protein digestion is a process of breaking down the whole protein into much smaller units so the body can then use these units to build its own proteins. Gluten proteins are not built by or stored in human or animal bodies. Rather, gluten proteins are specific to and only stored in those grains mentioned above. Therefore, fresh unprocessed beef will not contain gluten. Be aware that processed meats, such as deli meats, have additives in them that could contain gluten. Always check the label for the ingredients to be sure!
In summary, have no fear and feel free to enjoy some delicious fresh beef!
What role does beef play in a healthy gluten-free lifestyle?
Ok, now let’s switch gears a bit here. As you will see in a moment, beef becomes an important source of nutrients when you have to eliminate gluten from your diet. And what’s one of the main gluten-containing foods that comes to mind? Did we hear you say wheat?
You see, within Canada the Food and Drug Act mandates that all wheat flour must be fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals including some of the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid) and iron. Fortification means that vitamins and minerals have been added to a food. Overall, this means that all products containing wheat flour (bread and other baked goods, pasta and many breakfast cereals) will also contain these good-for-you nutrients. This is required in Canada to help prevent deficiencies for the majority of the population. And generally, it works as most people regularly consume these fortified products. In fact, Canadians get almost 30% of their daily calories from the grain food group (5). Therefore, those that eliminate wheat from their diet may be at risk for deficiency.
So we have a bit of a dilemma! A gluten-free diet means a wheat-free diet, which means missing out on this handy fortification! Believe it or not, gluten-free products are not currently covered by the legislation mentioned earlier. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), although fortification of gluten-free products is allowed, there are no required fortification levels specified.
So, how is this all connected to beef? Since a strict gluten-free diet has the potential to lead to nutrient deficiencies, it is important to get these nutrients from other food sources in the diet. Drum roll please… we give you beef! What a tasty solution! Remember all of those vitamins and minerals mentioned earlier in those wheat products? Well, beef is also full of many B vitamins, iron and zinc. Beef is often thought of as a good source of just protein and iron – and it is! But it’s also a powerhouse in many other ways.
We recognize that living with celiac disease can be pretty overwhelming! There’s so much to consider. Just remember, fresh unprocessed beef is totally safe to consume as part of a gluten-free diet and is a great source of nutrition. Incorporating whole foods like beef, other meats, beans and legumes into your diet is a great way to help ensure you get the nutrients you are missing out on from fortified wheat products. Finally, we want to remind you that one of the most important components of a healthy diet is variety. One great trick is to fill half your plate with colourful fruits and veggies! We hope we’ve cleared things up a bit for you today. Happy eating, everyone!
P.S. Looking for a great gluten free recipe? Give this one for Quinoa Stuffed Peppers a try!
- Canadian Celiac Association [Internet]: Missisauga, ON: The Association; c2011-2014 [cited 2015 Jan 22]. Frequently Asked Questions; [About 2 screens]. Available from: http://www.celiac.ca/b/?page_id=128
- Weiser H. Chemistry of Gluten Proteins. Food Microbiol [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2015 Jan 22]; 24 (2007) 115-119. doi:1016/j.fm.2006.07.004
- Chapter 6: Protein. Gropper SS, Smith JL, James LG. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism 5e. California: Wadsworth Cenage Learning; c2009. Pp 186-200.
- John JB, Silver S. Nutrition and Feeding of the Cow-Calf Herd: Digestive System of the Cow; 2007. Virginia State University. 2009 [cited 2015 Jan 22]; 1-4. Available from: www.ext.vt.edu
- Statistics Canada: Health Statistics Division. Overview of Canadians’ Eating Habits [Internet]. Ottawa: Statistics Canada; 2004 [cited 2015 Jan 22]. 19 p. Available from: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/Statcan/82-620-M/82-620-MIE2006002.pdf