What is Gluten Exactly?

When it comes to diet, nutrition and their combined impact on your health, few substances have been as widely talked about or as controversial as gluten. What is Gluten? Well, gluten is a form of sticky protein commonly found in wheat, barley and rye products. It is a naturally occurring molecule, and is what creates the sticky texture of dough. In fact, the name “gluten” is Latin for the word “glue.” It consists of two protein particles gliadin and glutenin, which are joined together using starch molecules found in the grain’s endosperm.

For many, gluten is a normal part of a healthy diet. It’s ubiquitous nature has made it a primary ingredient in many of the foods that can be found on tables and restaurants all throughout the world.  Bread, pasta and even beer all contain gluten.

However, not everyone has the ability to properly digest and absorb gluten. These people have what is known as gluten sensitivity or, in some cases, Celiac Disease.  Those afflicted with Celiac Disease suffer from potentially serious gastrointestinal issues that can permanently damage the intestinal tract and even cause life threatening symptoms in rare instances.

Thankfully, as awareness of gluten sensitivity and Celiac Disease has grown, a movement towards healthy, gluten-free alternatives has formed. A variety of foods and treatments with the goal of minimizing the inconveniences of living a life without gluten has led to advances in the understanding and care of those with Celiac Disease. If you’re interested in understanding what the fuss over this protein is all about, here’s a guide for everything you ever wanted to know about gluten.

Gluten: It’s Everywhere

As previously stated, the term “gluten” is synonymous with the sticky, glue-like nature of bread dough. If you’ve ever seen dough being made, or tried making some yourself, you’re all too aware how it seems as if it will readily stick to anything that touches it. This has led to some to believe that gluten is a byproduct of bread making, when it is, in fact, protein located in the wheats and grains themselves. Barley, rye and oats are just some of the types of plants that contain gluten.

After a flowering plant is fertilized, it begins to undergo physical changes. Within the seeds, a tissue known as endosperm begins to form, filling up a majority of the seed’s interior mass and providing nutrients to the embryo. Most of the endosperm is starch, but it can also contain proteins. One of these proteins is gluten. And although the amount of gluten in each seed may be small in relation to the overall mass of the endosperm, when combined with the thousands of other seeds that are ground into flour to create bread and other foods, it becomes easy to see how much gluten is actually in one’s diet. In fact, gluten alone accounts for over 80% of all protein found in wheat bread.

Gluten is not found in all grains, however. Buckwheat, quinoa and millet are all part of a family of grains that are gluten-free. They can still become contaminated with gluten, however, if they are coated in the flour of grains that do contain the protein.

Gluten Sensitivity and Side Effects

For most, gluten can be eaten daily with absolutely no ill effects associated with the protein. After all, wheat has remained a staple of the human diet for thousands of years. Unfortunately, a small percentage of the population may suffer from what is commonly known as “gluten sensitivity.” Upon eating gluten, sufferers may experience gastrointestinal distress ranging from mild bloating to upset stomach and even diarrhea. The relatively common nature of these symptoms often leaves suffers with few clues as to why they’re experiencing discomfort. As a result, they may not realize they are having an immune response to the gluten known as Celiac Disease.

effects of gluten
Effects of gluten

For those suffering from Celiac Disease, gluten triggers the body to release antibodies which attack small intestines. Injuring villi and causing certain symptoms like discomfort, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. These organs develop perforations that hinder absorption of vitamins/minerals. Hence, patients usually develop weak bones since their systems can’t take in calcium which is a building block for this organ.

Similarly, they may experience difficulty absorbing iron which ultimately leads to anemia. A condition characterized by low red blood cell count in the body, this prevents oxygen from being transmitted equally to all parts of the system. Kids with Celiac condition may also find it difficult to gain weight and grow normally, since essential nutrients are not absorbed by the body as is required. Doctors warn that when left unaddressed for long then Celiac can result to certain strains of cancer.

The History of Celiac Disease

For decades, those afflicted with Celiac Disease were forced to suffer in silence and confusion. Symptoms of bloating, abdominal swelling and fatigue were often attributed to poor diet, lack of exercise or stress. The commonality of its symptoms meant that doctor’s often attributed gluten sensitivity to more benign causes, leaving patients to continue wondering just what was wrong.

Although the root cause of celiac disease and its pathology would remain undiscovered until the 20th century, the first known causes can be traced back to the ancient Greeks almost 1800 years ago. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a physician living in Greece around 100 AD, observed what he would call the “Celiac Affection.” In his notes, he wrote how some patients were complaining of enlarged abdomens, irregular bowel movements, nausea and vomiting. And all apparently taking place after eating meals.

While the Greeks may have been meticulous note takers and historians, their medical techniques and technologies didn’t allow them to probe deeper into the causes of the Celiac Affection. It wasn’t until the 1800s that a doctor named Mathew Baillie, began publishing his work. His studies focused on a series of patients who all suffered from the same symptoms; frequent bouts of diarrhea that lasted for extended periods of time, swollen bellies and chronic malnutrition. Perhaps most prescient was his observation that patients who lived on diets consisting largely of rice (a gluten free food) had a much better chance of recovery and remission.

The pieces of the puzzle were finally put together almost 80 years later by Dr. Samuel Gee. During a lecture to a group of students, Gee spoke of how diet played a critical role in managing the symptoms of celiac disease. As a leading pediatrician, Gee had spent years studying Dutch children who were afflicted with the then unknown celiac disease. Gee remarked that during mussel season, symptoms would largely disappear, as the children were unwittingly being fed a gluten free diet consisting largely of seafood. Once mussel season ended, however, gluten was reintroduced into the diet and discomfort returned.

Due to the high mortality rate of these early Celiac Disease patients, many autopsies were performed in order to try and gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of pain and malnutrition. It was through these surgical studies that the connection between the abdominal discomfort and the lasting damage to the intestinal tract was made. The deceased sufferers of Celiac Disease all showed extensive scarring and inflammation to the mucous membranes of the intestines.  These advances were pivotal in tying together the dietary nature of Celiac Disease and its physical impacts on the human body.

Read more about Celiac Disease.

What is the Treatment?

Gluten sensitivity and Celiac Disease are lifelong afflictions. There are no cures or remedies that have permanent effects. The only way to effectively manage the symptoms and the disease is by maintaining a gluten-free diet. By doing so, you can prevent the negative immune response that creates intestinal discomfort and pain. Gluten-free foods include graham flour, semolina, farina, barley, spelt and malt. If you have any questions about what foods are right for you, consult with your physician. They may recommend setting up a meal plan with a trained dietician in order to ensure that you receive the proper nutrients you need.

Sources of Gluten

Though wheat is the most common food that can cause gluten contamination, one should as well be on the lookout for its derivatives which often go by names that are somewhat difficult to recognize. Such as durum, semolina, emmer, farina and spelt. If you see a product that lists any of these ingredients then avoid it as they all contain gluten.

Apart from these, there are other commercial food items that may have hidden traces of the substance as well. For instance, some manufacturers add wheat to starch when making certain types of snacks like crisps. But may not necessarily mention this information when labeling their packages. Even still, take time and read labels since some actually mark them gluten-free.

Also note that products written no-wheat may not necessarily be free from this protein. They can still have barley or rye-based ingredients in unfamiliar names such as those mentioned above. If not sure on whether the product you’re buying from the stores contains gluten or otherwise, contact the specific manufacturer for more details.

gluten-free labels
Gluten-free labels

Nevertheless, according to FDA, foods that have a maximum threshold of 20 portions per million of gluten don’t have to be marked. Since this amount is considered a very negligible to cause any physical reactions on people. The enactment was passed on August 5th 2014, giving consumers surety that in case they have Celiac disease then foods containing traces of wheat labeled gluten-free should not surpass this particular limit. If a product has been highlighted as containing wheat starch among the ingredients, then this should follow with an asterisk sign explaining that it has sufficiently been processed to meet FDA standards.

Sometimes when preparing gluten-free products cross-contamination can still occur during the processing stage. It happens when ingredients are also handled in similar machines used to make other known sources of the protein, such as bread. This source of contagion can easily be overlooked by largescale food companies, which handle tons of different production materials every day in their factories. However, for your own safety it’s good to ask the manufacturers themselves if this happens in their premises.

Even at home, cross-contamination can still occur when prepared food comes into contact with gluten through shared cooking utensils, or storage environments. Never use the same scooping spoon for a wheat-based delicacy with that which does not contain this compound.

Vinegar and Beverages

Scientists hold it that most distilled liquor drinks and vinegars are free from gluten, even if they are made from grains that may otherwise contain the protein. Peptide molecules that hold this compound are too large to pass through the distillation stage of making alcohol, hence leaving the resultant solution gluten-free.

While hard liquor and wines are by and large safe to drink, the same does not apply to beers, lagers, malt beverages or ales which are made from grains that need no distillation at all. This increases their chances of containing gluten. Nevertheless, there are still some unique brands of beer in the market today which do not contain this substance.


Studies show that 1 in every 130 individuals live with Celiac Disease, and genetic predisposition is a major contributor as the condition usually runs within families. If a person gets diagnosed with the condition, then chances are high that a few close kin will also have it. Parents and siblings should undergo regular screening as they could easily have Celiac as well. Avoiding gluten based foods is the only sure way to stay healthy. Research shows that approximately 3 million U.S residents suffer from this disease, which approximately translates to the figure mentioned above. Even more worrying is that out of the millions, only 1 in 4,700 people have ever received official diagnosis from a medic. Which means that many people are currently living with Celiac and don’t have a clue about it. Check out more statistics on Celiac Disease.

Celiac Disease afflicts people of all ages and ethnic groups, but seems to appear with much less frequency in African-, Asian- and Hispanic-American populations. This means that Caucasians are more likely to develop and be diagnosed with the disease over their lifespan than other ethnicities.

Moreover, out of this figure many more are likely to develop other autoimmune disorders by continuing with their gluten diets. Not knowing that it’s harming them from within. While all patients will experience certain reactions, the intensity of these side effects may vary from one individual to another depending on their specific body makeup. There are those who’ll show signs after just a few days, while others may take several months before any symptoms are seen. Those who suffer from gluten sensitivity are advised to stop taking oats, since they are usually refined on equipment contaminated with grain particles. Similarly, when dining out in restaurants ask them if they offer gluten-free menus since some eateries nowadays do that.

Living Gluten-Free

Thankfully, being gluten-free has never been easier. Reducing or even removing gluten from your diet has many positive health benefits that extend beyond simply eliminating the side effects of Celiac Disease. As a result, more and more people are choosing to live their lives gluten-free. And many of these people don’t possess any gluten sensitivity. In 2013 alone, there were over 200 million gluten-free orders placed at restaurants. Of these orders, almost 80% listed reasons other than Celiac Disease are gluten sensitivity as the reason for being gluten-free.

One of the major benefits of having so many people interested in being gluten-free is that it means a massive investment by restaurants and food producers to cater to this growing market. Traditionally, being gluten-free meant having to make difficult choices with regards to what to order when eating out, or when shopping at a grocery store. Now, the diet’s popularity has caused a renewed interest in creating tasty, healthy dishes that allow those with Celiac Disease to enjoy some of their favorite foods without having to worry about potential flare ups or intestinal distress.

Weight loss is one of the primary benefits for those who are attempting to live a gluten-free lifestyle. Foods high in gluten (such as breads and pasta) are often filled with starches and calories. For those looking to lose weight, cutting out gluten can mean reducing caloric intake greatly, and help make cutting those stubborn few pounds a little bit easier.

Whether it’s to prevent the effects of Celiac Disease or simply to make changes in your daily diet, it is always important to consult with a physician before making any drastic changes in your eating habits. If you plan on cutting traditional sources of fiber like breads out of your diet, be sure to eat plenty of vegetables in order to make up the nutritional difference. Know what foods can be substituted for those that contain gluten. And most importantly, always listen to your body. You’ll avoid any abdominal issues and feel much healthier in the long run.

Hopefully the next time someone asks you, “What is Gluten?” you can now give them a more informed answer.


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