What Is Gluten?

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Seminars, Webinars

By Annell St. Charles, Ph.D., R.D.

Gluten is the general name given to the proteins found in certain grain products — including wheat and its derivatives (wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, faro, graham, and einkorn wheat), rye, barley, triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), malt, brewer’s yeast, and wheat starch (Celiac Disease Foundation, 2014).  Apparently, the hybridization that led to the production of modern bread wheat enabled the creation of a product with high amounts of the gluten complex, making modern bread wheat the worst gluten offender.

Gluten plays a significant role in nourishing plant embryos during germination.  In addition, as the name implies, “glu-ten” acts as a type of glue that holds food together, affects the elasticity of dough made from these grains, and gives shape and a chewy texture to products (such as bread) that are made from the dough.  It is also used as an additive in foods that have low-protein levels or no protein at all.  When it is used in vegetarian recipes (lacking any animal products), it helps to increase the firmness of the texture of the finished product in order to replicate that found in meats and other animal foods.

Gluten is actually made up of two different proteins, gliadin (prolamin) and glutelin, which are attached to starch in the endosperm of the grain.  Because the starch is water-soluble but the gluten isn’t, gluten can be obtained by dissolving away the starch with cold water.  (Salty cold water works best).  When gluten enters the digestive system, the proteins are broken down into smaller units called peptide chains, which are made up of amino acids.  Apparently, these peptide chains are the source of gluten sensitivity in some people, resulting in an array of symptoms, potentially contributing to more serious conditions such as celiac disease.  Whereas glutelin is water-soluble, gliadin is alcohol-soluble.  Gliadin is considered the most toxic.  Among the problematic disorders related to gluten, approximately six percent may be due to non-celiac gluten sensitivity, 10 percent may be the result of wheat allergy, and only one percent would be celiac disease.  However, despite its lower occurrence, celiac disease is considered the most serious of the bunch.

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