Continuing EducationHomestudyNutritionSeminars

What Is Gluten?

wheat-allergiesBy 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, einkorn wheat), rye, barley, triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), malt, brewer’s yeast, and wheat starch.  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), which are made from the dough. Gluten 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 the texture found in meats and other animal foods.

Since gluten is found in the grains wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (as stated above, a hybrid of wheat and rye), and foods made from these grains, people who are sensitive to gluten should avoid any foods that contain these substances. Avoiding wheat is considered especially difficult because of the number of wheat-based flours and ingredients commonly used.

Common Foods that Typically Contain Gluten

  • Pastas (ravioli, gnocchi, couscous, dumplings)
  • Noodles (ramen, udon, soba, chow mein, egg noodles)
  • Breads and pastries (croissants, pita, naan, bagels, flatbreads, cornbread, potato bread, muffins , donuts, rolls)
  • Crackers (pretzels, goldfish, graham crackers)
  • Baked goods (cakes, cookies, pie crusts, brownies)
  • Cereal and granola (corn flakes and rice puffs often contain malt extract/flavoring; granola is often made with regular oats, which do not contain gluten, however oats may be cross-contaminated during growing, harvesting, or processing
  • Breakfast foods (pancakes, waffles, French toast, crepes, biscuits)
  • Breading and coating mixes (panko, breadcrumbs)
  • Croutons (stuffings, dressings)
  • Sauces and gravies (many use wheat flour as a thickener; soy sauce, cream sauces made with a roux)
  • Flour tortillas
  • Beer (unless listed gluten-free; malt beverages)
  • Brewer’s yeast

By all accounts, gluten sensitivity is increasing in the U.S. The rise in gluten-related sensitivity disorders can be traced back to changes in the way that wheat is processed and wheat-based products are manufactured.  The changes led to alternation in the type and availability of grain products in the marketplace. In essence, the amount of gluten in grain-based products increased as manufacturers attempted to create products with more consumer appeal.  In addition, the number of complaints that seemed to stem from an increased consumption of these products kept pace with their availability. Somewhere along the line, our genes also changed in response to these modifications in our diet. Our bodies reacted in alarm to the presence of gluten, targeting it as a foreign invader.