What Is Gluten?

We talk a lot about eating a gluten free diet, and what foods contain gluten… What is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein composite which is found in foods which have been processed from wheat, or similar grain cereals such as rye or barley.  The word gluten is latin, meaning ‘glue’ which gives you a clue as to what gluten does: it gives elasticity to doughs etc and helps food to stick what is glutentogether well (which is why, in gluten free cooking, xanthan gum is often added to do the elastic job instead!)  It also gives cakes that spongy texture and is used as a thickening agent.

When bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is released,creating an elastic network which holds the bread together.  It brings stability to the mixture, which is why it is also added to many other unexpected foods such as ice cream or tomato ketchup.

So people who are wheat intolerant need simply to avoid foods which contain wheat (and often barley and rye as they are closely related)… but with celiac disease, you need also to watch for those foods where the gluten composite has been added to food for stability – and that’s tricky, because it could be in anything processed so labels have to be read!

Celiac disease means that every time that gluten protein enters the intestines, the antibodies will see it as an intruder and will attack it.  Unfortunately in doing so, they cause huge damage to the intestines over time, which is why a strict gluten free diet has to be followed at all times.

As said, xanthan gum can do the same job as gluten, so please don’t think that all your gluten free cooking will fall apart, but it is more expensive than gluten from wheat, so most food manufacturers choose wheat instead.

And the scientific bit on gluten, courtesy of WiseGeek

“Within gluten, there are actually four main proteins: albumins, glutelins, globulins, and prolamins. Glutelins and prolamins are found in higher concentrations in wheat, while albumins and globulins are more plentiful in corn and rice. Many people associate wheat with the gluten freeterm “gluten,” however, as it is those proteins that are most directly related to health issues such as celiac disease. Glutelins, in particular, are dangerous for those susceptible to intolerance because of the way that acids in the body break them down.

Most of the protein in wheat — 80% — is made up of the prolamin called gliadin and the glutelin called glutenin. When these molecules are joined together due to a chemical reaction, they stretch and harden, allowing dough to form a light, airy loaf with a chewy texture. As a result, these proteins are commonly found in flour and other baking products.

Gluten is also used on its own as a protein supplement, particularly for people who do not have access to other protein sources. The protein it contains also makes it useful in meat substitutes, especially those used in vegan and vegetarian diets. Imitation meats or wheat meats, such asseitan, are often made of concentrated gluten.”