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What is gluten?
There’s so much talk about gluten-free diets these days that you might be wondering what is gluten and why so many people talk about this little protein.
Yes, gluten is a protein, and people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity have to eliminate it completely from their diets.
But, what is gluten, exactly, and why are so many people avoiding it?
Jimmy Kimmel asked random people on the street, “What is gluten?,” and he found that many people on a gluten-free diet have no idea what gluten even is! Ack.
Watching this video got me thinking. How many people don’t even know what gluten is and how to explain it? I decided to write this article to help you understand what is gluten and why it might be harming your body. Let’s discuss.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. It’s what gives breads that elastic, spongy texture and is what holds or binds foods together. Think of gluten as the “glue” that holds foods together (the word “gluten” literally means “glue” in Latin).
Gluten is the sticky substance that binds pastas, breads, bagels, cakes, muffins, cookies and other foods together.
Because gluten is considered an all purpose stabilizer and binder, food manufacturers add it to a lot of foods to give it better texture and taste. That’s why gluten is found in random places like salad dressings, gravies and even lipsticks and medications!
Gluten is everywhere and often hard to detect. Gluten comes in many forms like malt, MSG and in fermented alcohols. It is often hidden in things like licorice (wheat flour is the first ingredient in many mainstream licorice brands) and soy sauce, which is about 40 percent wheat!
In this article, 10 Surprise Products that Contain Gluten, I identify gluten found in random products that don’t seem like they contain gluten, but they do.
Furthermore, gluten goes by many names, so I created a free download called 100 Alternative Names for Gluten to help you identify the many sources of the protein. This cheatsheet is essential for anyone new to the gluten-free diet.
The best way to avoid gluten is to eat naturally gluten-free foods that you prepare at home. Naturally gluten-free foods are often some of the best foods for you too and often don’t include an ingredient label to decode! Here is a short list of naturally gluten-free foods:
- Dark Chocolate (pure chocolate – beware of add-ins)
- Kasha (buckwheat)
If at all possible, I suggest you prepare and eat food at home often if you’re avoiding gluten. When you eat out, your risk of getting glutened is high. Restaurant kitchens can usually accommodate you, but they are minefields for cross contamination.
For example, if the chef is handling sandwich bread, then s/he touches the lettuce on your dish, you can get sick. Likewise, just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it was prepared in a gluten-free way. Shared fryers in restaurants are notorious for cross contaminating your foods. French fries, which are made of potatoes and are naturally gluten-free, are often cooked in a shared fryer along with chicken nuggets, which are not gluten-free. This means the same exact oil used to cook gluten cooked your gluten-free food too.
In addition to eating naturally gluten-free foods, there are plenty of packaged foods bearing the “gluten-free” labels – anything from bread and breadcrumbs to pastas, frozen pizzas, crackers and salad dressings!
When a food bears the “gluten-free” label, it means it contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten (a very trace amount of gluten) per the FDA requirements. If it’s certified gluten-free by a third-party agency, it typically contains less than 10 ppm of gluten. You can learn more about gluten-free labeling on packaged goods in this article.
What Does Wheat-Free vs. Gluten-Free Mean?
When something is marked wheat-free, it simply means it contains no wheat. However, wheat-free doesn’t mean a product is necessarily gluten-free. Gluten is found in things like barley and rye as well – so while the product may not have wheat in it, it still contains gluten.
Don’t be fooled into thinking something is gluten-free when it’s only labeled as “wheat-free.”
Also, by law, food manufacturers must disclose if a product contains wheat somewhere on the allergen label as wheat is one of the top eight allergens that must be disclosed on U.S. products. However, a manufacturer does not need to disclose if there is gluten in the product. Remember, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. If something is only wheat-free, it may still contain gluten. You’ve been warned.
Why Is Gluten Bad for Some People?
Gluten is bad for many people because it is very difficult to digest and some experts even believe gluten is toxic to all humans and may be the cause of leaky gut in some people. It takes a lot of acid in our stomach to break down the hard-to-digest protein.
To digest gluten, you might find that your stomach acid bubbles up (often causing some sort of heartburn or acid reflux). This just means the stomach is working hard to digest this difficult-to-digest protein. Too often people take antacids or proton pump inhibitors to queal the stomach acid from bubbling, which is basically masking the symptoms and doing nothing to digest the protein.
Think of it this way, if you calm your stomach acid with artificial drugs, then the undigested particles simply fall into the next stage of digestion… your small intestine. These undigested gluten particles dig holes in the paper thin small intestinal lining, causing food to leak into your bloodstream and causing havoc throughout your body.
If You Have a Gluten Intolerance…
For those people with a gluten intolerance, which basically means they struggle to digest gluten, gluten causes chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. Also, the food particles that “leaked” out of the gut become free radicals that cause damage throughout the body – usually causing inflammation at a place where we are genetically weak (joints, brain, skin, etc.). Read more about the symptoms of gluten sensitivity in this article.
If You Have Celiac Disease…
For those with celiac disease, gluten causes an autoimmune reaction where the body sees gluten as bad and goes into attack mode. When the killer T cells in the body launch an attack on gluten (at the site of the small intestine), two things typically happen.
First, the autoimmune attack creates holes in the small intestine, allowing food to leak out into the bloodstream. As discussed prior, you now understand the kind of damage such free radicals can cause throughout the body.
Second, the attack also damages the villi surrounding the small intestine. The villi are the finger-like follicles attached to the small intestine and are responsible for absorbing and distributing nutrients to your body. When the villi are flattened and damage, due to the autoimmune attack, someone with celiac disease may become malnourished because they are unable to absorb nutrients from the food they eat.
Read more about the symptoms of celiac disease in this article. Celiac disease is not just a digestive disease; rather symptoms of celiac disease are typically pervasive throughout the body and manifest itself in many different ways from bone loss to stunted growth to sores in the mouth.
So Now You Know
Understanding what is gluten is imperative when you’re on a gluten-free diet. You want to know exactly what you’re avoiding, why you’re avoiding it, and how it impacts your health and long-term prognosis.
The next time someone asks you, “What is Gluten,” you now know exactly what to say.
Got questions? Please leave a comment and I’ll be sure to pop in and answer it.