It has a lot of people talking about it, and many are cutting it out of their diet as they believe it isn’t good for them – but what is gluten?

Gluten is made up of two proteins; gliadin, which is a prolamin protein, and glutenin which is a glutelan protein. Prolamins are plant storage proteins found in the seeds of plants, and the gliadin in gluten is the protein that most people usually react to (there are three subsections of these gliadins A, B and D). Although gluten is talked about in relation to wheat, it is also found in other cereal grains such as spelt, barley and rye.

Gluten is what gives the elastic property when making dough with flour and water. In fact, its name comes from the Latin for ‘glue’. Due to its ‘sticky’ property it is also used in cosmetic products to help bind them together.

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The more refined the gluten is

The more the texture of the product is ‘chewy’, such as bagels or pizza as opposed to pastry flours that have less refined gluten within. The action of kneeding the dough will create more cross-links within the gluten strands and this will also contribute to a chewy texture.

Due to the helpfulness of gluten to increase structure and making a product more sticky, it is also used to help bind and stabilise food in products such as salad dressings, ice-cream, soy sauce, vinegar and broth. If you check labels on your next shopping trip you may well be surprised to see what sort of products have gluten in them.

So, should you ditch the gluten-containing foods within your diet? Well, not necessarily. Gluten is used to increase the protein content of some foods, including vegetarian and vegan food. Therefore, if you rely on these kinds of food for some of your daily protein, then you can be reducing your consumption unnecessarily. However, for some people, when gluten reaches the digestive tract it plays havoc. The immune cells of the individual react negatively to it and perceive it as a harmful substance.

Coeliacs have a severe reaction to gluten and not only is the gluten attacked, but also the sufferers own digestive tract. Over time, this leads to vitamin and mineral deficiencies as their body can no longer absorb nutrients effectively due to the flattening of the gut’s microvilli which is where the nutrients are absorbed. They can also suffer from fatigue, anaemia, neurological disorders and other digestive issues.

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For those with a gluten intolerance, they may suffer from bloating, gas, diarrhoea, IBS, pains in the stomach, fatigue and even joint pains. An allergy to gluten is when the body is unable to breakdown the protein properly. It is difficult to know whether you have an intolerance to gluten, but an elimination diet is the cheapest and easiest way of finding out. After a period of two weeks without any gluten in the diet, reintroduce it with every meal and see if there is any reaction.

Some people people have a genetic predisposition to a gluten sensitivity, but this doesn’t mean that they will definitely have to avoid gluten. Keeping your gut flora in good health may go some of the way towards remaining healthy. Having a nutrient-dense diet and trying to avoid things that can break down and destroy the gut flora like antibiotics may go some of the way of avoiding future problems with gluten.

For those choosing to switch to a gluten-free diet, there may be more harm in the gluten-free foods packaged on the supermarket shelves. They often contain sugars, salts and preservatives to make them taste better, and increase their shelf life. Eating a lot of these types of food can add to fat storage with the increased sugar intake. If you are thinking of removing gluten from your diet then replacing it with home-made products and non-processed foods is the better option where possible.

There is suggestion that it is not the gluten causing the problem in today’s lifestyle, but in fact the modern wheat we are eating. The ancient wheat we used to eat was very different genetically from the one we use today. It has been genetically modified to grow fast and yield greatly – giving the farmer a better return. Long gone are the days of fields with high wheat swaying in the breeze – Dwarf wheat is what is normally used in today’s breads. The mineral content is lower and it may bring on an increase in inflammatory markers. Inflammation is one of the first signs of disease within the body. The gluten content of today’s wheat may also be higher than that in more traditional wheat from many years ago, and this maybe because more gluten makes it easier to slice the bread.

Therefore, if you suspect that you have a problem with gluten, it may be worth your while trying an ancient bread such as Kamut, Einkorn, Spelt or Durum wheat as these do not have the subsection of gliadin that can cause problems sometimes seen within wheat gluten.

Refs:

http://wholegrainscouncil.org/newsroom/blog/2012/01/research-sheds-light-on-gluten-issues 

http://www.foodrenegade.com/the-rise-of-gluten-intolerance/ 

http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.2009.0092#/doi/full/10.1089/jmf.2009.0127

http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4614-8560-5_2

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