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What is Gluten?

Updated on 04. Jun. 2020

Humans have been making and consuming bread for tens of thousands of years, but if you take a walk through your local supermarket you will see that there has been a war of sorts cast against a very important part of bread: gluten. It seems that everywhere you look in the grocery store you will see the label “gluten-free,” it’s slapped on the packages of everything from baked goods to vegetables and salsas.

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The term “gluten-free” has become such a powerful marketing tool that the phrase is appearing on products that have never and likely never will contain gluten. So what is this mysterious substance that people are avoiding at all costs?


Gluten is the term for the proteins that are found in wheat and various other grains. When these proteins are combined with liquid they act as a glue to help food maintain its shape and gives bread dough its signature elasticity. The more the dough or batter is mixed, the more developed the gluten becomes. In products such as bread and pizza dough, you want the gluten to be fully developed to produce a chewy texture. However, when mixing things like a cake batter or cookie dough, you want to avoid over mixing so you do not end up with rubbery textured baked goods.


People who have issues digesting gluten suffer from either celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the small intestine and affects around 1 percent of the population, those with celiac disease have severe reactions if they consume foods containing gluten. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it can cause a breakdown of the lining of the small intestine which may lead to diminished nutrient absorption.


Celiac disease is fairly difficult to diagnose and often goes undiagnosed. To diagnose celiac disease, gastroenterologists use a procedure called an endoscopic biopsy. In order to have an endoscopic biopsy done, you have to be eating gluten (experts recommend eating it for one to three months prior to the biopsy). The biopsy, which is taken from the small intestine, is tested for gluten related damage.1 Possible symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, constipation, bloating, headaches, fatigue, gas, irritability, as well as others. If you think you may have celiac disease, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor. There are also helpful resources available online, such as the symptom checklist available through the Celiac Disease Foundation.


Those suffering from gluten intolerance do not have the severe reaction celiac sufferers have, rather they experience bloating, fatigue, gas and general digestive discomfort after consuming gluten. Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity does not cause damage to the small intestine.2


Both of these afflictions have risen quite significantly in the last two decades, leading many people to speculate the cause. One possible cause of gluten sensitivities that has come up repeatedly in the recent years is new, modified forms of wheat. Some believe that these new strains of wheat are so modified that our bodies do not know how to digest them properly. The vast majority of the scientific community does not agree with these statements, and there is no research that supports the idea but that has not stopped anti-GMO activists from using this argument. They claim that the GMO wheat crops of today cause an alarming number of people to develop gluten sensitivities.3


The science behind what exactly is causing people to become sensitive to gluten, or those who claim they feel better on a diet free of gluten, is still ongoing. Some other theories as to what is causing this increase in gluten sensitivities include the use of antibiotics, our extremely sterile environments, improvements in diagnostics, or sensitivities to some of the other compounds found in gluten-containing grains.


Some people believe that our modern dependence on antibiotics has resulted in our systems becoming so weakened that they do not know what is good and what is bad, so we end up fighting off or rejecting things we wouldn’t have in the past (i.e. gluten). There is no scientific evidence to support this claim, but it has been widely circulating in the celiac world.


Another possible culprit leading to the increase in gluten-related illnesses is the quality of the wheat products we are consuming. Many of the commercial wheat or grain products consumed today have been so heavily processed that the grains lose all of their nutrition. These products are produced so quickly that the proteins do not have the time to break down properly, making it difficult for our bodies to digest them. Many of these products also use white flour, which is produced when the nutritious germ and bran are removed from the endosperm. In some cases, white flour is even bleached to obtain the bright white color some bakers desire.


One of the dangers of this gluten-free trend is that people have begun to associate the label ‘gluten-free’ as healthy. This is generally not the case, and a lot of packaged gluten-free products are anything but. Many of these products are filled with sugars and flours that lack much (if any) nutritional value.


If you are not clinically diagnosed with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, there is no harm in eating gluten containing products. If you want even more bang for your nutritional buck, stick to sourdough bread which is fermented and therefore easier for your body to break down. A study from Italy found that even those with celiac disease may be able to enjoy sourdough bread without the ill effects of modern bread products. 4

1. “Diagnosis and Treatment.” Celiac Disease Foundation. Celiac Disease Foundation, n.d. Web.

2. “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.” Celiac Disease Foundation. Celiac Disease Foundation, n.d. Web.

3. Barclay, Eliza and Allison Aubrey. “Doctors say Changes in Wheat do not Explain Rise of Celiac Disease.” the Salt. NPR, 26 Sept. 2013. Web

4. “Giving Up Gluten? Why You Should say Hello to Sourdough.” Mindbodygreen. Mind Body Green, 24 Jan. 2014. Web.

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