So What Is Gluten Anyway?!

Gluten is a protein component that can be found in foods processed from wheat and other related species like rye, barley, spelt, triticale, malts and kamut. Therefore, it is usually found in cereals and in bread. However, not all grain foods have gluten.

Examples of grains which do not have the gluten component include millet, buckwheat, teff, oats, soybeans, amaranth, quinoa and sunflower seeds. However some of these other grain-like items such as quinoa do contain saponins which are similar to gluten in their potential negative effects on the digestive system. Individuals who are avoiding gluten should also watch out for several food additives like flavorings, stabilizers, and other thickening agents that may contain gluten.

How is Gluten Used In Food Products?

Gluten can be eliminated from wheat flour to produce wheat starch. But not all gluten in wheat flour can be completely removed. According to the Food and Drug Administration, if a certain amount of gluten is eliminated from any food component, it can be labeled as ‘gluten-free’. Dried and milled gluten that is added to flour improves the dough’s ability to rise and also increases the bread’s chewiness and structural stability.

Gluten-added dough should be worked vigorously for it to rise to its full capacity. An automatic food processor or bread machine may be necessary for kneading. Gluten also provides supplemental protein to products with minimal or non-existent protein components.

Gluten also provides many other important qualities to bread. Gluten keeps the gases released during fermentation in the dough, so bread is able to rise up before it is even baked. Gluten also firms up when cooked and with the help of starch, ensures that bread maintains it’s proper shape. Gluten also has unique absorbent qualities that makes bread capable of soaking up broth. This protein component is often used by vegetarians as a meat imitation. On the bad side, gluten is also believed to be partly responsible for breads tendency to go stale rather quickly.

Gluten Intolerance & Hypersensitivity

So, what is gluten’s effect on people with Celiac disease? There are individuals who suffer from a medical condition known as Celiac disease, which impedes the digestion of gluten in the system. Individuals suffering from Celiac disease must eat gluten-free foods to prevent allergic reactions. If improperly addressed, the ingestion of gluten in the body can be fatal.

In addition, caution must also be exercised in eating grains that don’t have gluten, particularly teff and oats, as they are usually grown near food with gluten or are processed in the same bins. As mentioned earlier many types of grains also contain gluten-like substances with similar effects on the body.

Gluten intolerance is an immune problem. There are immune systems that are innately allergic to gluten and which react to it. This seemingly harmless protein stimulates an immune response in the small intestine of individuals with gluten intolerance and those with Celiac disease. This means that the body generates antibodies to fight gluten, assuming it to be a foreign invader. During the process of fighting off gluten, the antibodies also attack the villi of the small intestines, creating gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal symptoms and discomfort.

The actual symptoms may vary and there are patients who don’t experience symptoms at all although it is estimated that many people not yet diagnosed as Celiac do have a measure of intolerance to gluten. Some of the common signs and symptoms of Celiac disease include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gas & bloating
  • Anemia
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal distention
  • Vitamin & mineral deficiencies
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Delayed growth in children
  • Migraines
  • Failure to thrive
  • Tooth abnormalities

It is crucial to note that intestines can be damaged even without noticeable symptoms and that is why people with Celiac disease should avoid gluten-containing foods entirely.

Hopefully we've been able to give you a better idea of what gluten is, how it is used in foods and potential considerations you should give to including or eliminating it from your diet.