Gluten is a protein found in grains, mainly in wheat, barley, oats, and rye -and that's why it's also found in foods that use these as ingredients. Recently this protein has been in the spotlight since connections have been made between gluten and allergies and even autoimmune conditions.
For this same reason, gluten-free foods are in higher demand than ever. Some examples are bread and grains without this protein composite and others. In this article, we take a look at what gluten is, which foods contain it, and gluten-free options out there; and finally, what health conditions have been linked to this protein.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, and products made from them. In turn, these grains come from herbaceous plants. Since this involves a protein, this component is made up of amino acids (molecules important for biological processes). Besides, it contains 'gliadins' and 'glutenins,' also known as 'prolamines,' molecules that are found in these very grains. These are the components linked to allergies to this protein composite and autoimmune conditions.
This is true since said molecules can be hard to digest and remain in the body as toxic waste. But, why have the harmful effects of gluten come to our attention just recently if it's always existed? The thing is, until recently, different unexplainable health conditions have now been linked to excess consumption of this protein.
As we mentioned, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. For the same reason, most of the foods made from these grains contain this protein. Although there are many other foods with gluten out there, here are a few examples:
In comparison with other grains, wheat contains the most gluten. In fact, this element makes up 80% of its proteins. Foods derived from wheat starch and grains like wheat germ, wheat bran, couscous, flour, semolina, spelt, kamut, and triticale, all contain this substance. On the same note, processed foods and fast food all usually contain gluten. This is the case since the composition of this protein makes it easier and cheaper to make foods.
Similar to wheat which contains prolamins, barley contains hordeins, another type of prolamin that is very difficult to digest and that also gets stuck in the body as potentially toxic waste. On top of that, it contains gliadin (the main compound in gluten, mentioned previously).
A few examples of drinks containing gluten are beer, Scottish whiskey, and Dutch gin. Don't forget, barley water. In this respect, an example of a food with this substance made from barley is barley bread, also known as brown bread. All of these foods and drinks contain less gluten than the amount found in wheat products.
Oats or any foods made from them also contain gluten. Oats are often sold in the form of flakes to consumers. However, this food is not as crucial in the Western diet as barley. Like wheat contains prolamines and wheat hordeins, oats contain avenins.
Although oats don't have either gliadin nor glutenin, sometimes they are processed with grains that do contain them. Even if a product is sold as 'pure oat' (the kind that isn't mixed with other grains in the production process), currently there's still a risk of avenin toxicity.
Rye is another plant with grains which are very similar to wheat and barley. It's mostly used to make flour for bread (known as 'rye bread'), as well as in beers and top end vodkas. That's why these products that we just mentioned contain gluten. This grain is mainly consumed in Europe and North America. And, it isn't just an ingredient in food, it's also used as a natural laxative and in cosmetic products like certain lipsticks.
Since it helps to create a spongy, viscous texture, especially when mixed with other foods, gluten is often used as an ingredient in meat substitutes. Seitan is one example which is a standard part of a vegan or vegetarian diet. These are also popular foods during particular religious festivals that prohibits meat consumption for a period of time.
Although it might not seem like it at first, there are so many foods without this substance out there. Particularly those made from pseudocereals that are high in carbs and fat. However, a diet based solely on pseudocereals could lead to macro and micronutrient deficiencies. For the same reason, some research suggests incorporating nutrients like omega-3 oils, fiber, and probiotics and prebiotics in the diet to make up for a significant deficit in said nutrients.
Pseudocereals are seeds that come from non-herbaceous plants that, therefore, do not contain this protein composite. They are also rich in protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, and can be used to make bread and other food products. So, here are some example of these gluten-free foods:
Quinoa, a seed that dates back to precolumbian America, is an essential food for gluten-free diets. It's grown in the Andes mountains and is a highly nutritious product. You can make delicious salads and stews from this South American grain.
Rice in and of itself doesn't usually contain gluten. The problem is that, during the production process, it often gets mixed with substances that do contain it. However, there are varieties of rice that attempt to avoid this mix. For example, some of the most common types of gluten-free rice are brown rice and wild rice. Using these, flour and other foods have been developed.
Beans are a type of mesoamerican seed. These come in different colors and sizes and are high in protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamin B. These are used to make a variety of foods, from salads to complex broths and stews.
Amaranth is another plant with Andean origins. The use of this food is highly traditional since it's representative of many precolumbian cultures. Besides, it's a source of proteins and minerals like calcium, iron, and phosphorus. Of course, it is found in typical dishes from this area, as well as in sweets and some bread.
Soy is one of the most consumed foods in a gluten-free diet. This is a legume with high protein content. Oils and flours, milk, and even meat replacements are made from this plant. Besides being a part of a vegan or vegetarian diet, it's a traditional food in many parts of Asia. Currently, there is a wide variety of foods, condiments, and meat substitutes made using soy.
Other gluten-free foods are fruits and vegetables, potatoes, eggs, oil and vinegar, tapioca, fish, chicken, seafood, walnuts, chickpeas, millet, and buckwheat. On the same note, corn could be added to this list, although recently it was linked to gastrointestinal issues that could aggravate intolerances. All of the foods mentioned prior are rich in omega-3, protein, fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics. That's why these are excellent alternatives for those with gluten allergies or intolerances.
Gluten is an essential part of the traditional bread baking process since it helps with the dough's texture and makes it easier to work with. The protein molecules that it's made up of are necessary for said process. Gliadin makes it sticky, while glutenin helps to make it stretchy. However, the nutritional value of this protein composite is poor and easy to substitute. In fact, currently, it's known that in some people it can even cause chronic inflammation in the small intestine, which is known as celiac disease.
That's why there are studies working on making wheat and other grains without prolamins and glutelins, as a dietary alternative. Likewise, there are gluten-free bread recipes made from cornstarch, potato, rice flour, and margarine, as well as other ingredients. And finally, experimental gluten-free dough development is on the rise. Thanks to everything mentioned before, you can find gluten-free bread in many different formats: rustic and round loaves, soft bread, baguettes, and many others.
Gluten intolerance is an extreme sensitivity to this protein. In other words, gluten could cause significant side effects even with just minor exposure. In medical terms, sensitivity to this protein composite is an autoimmune condition that can manifest itself in many different ways. This intolerance is mainly characterized by an abnormal immune response after the consumption of this protein, which occurs mostly in those people who are genetically predisposed.
In other words, although exposure can cause gastrointestinal issues in many, certain individuals are especially sensitive to this substance. This means that some people are more likely to develop an intolerance than others. The risk of developing chronic conditions like celiac disease or gluten-sensitive enteropathy are some of the consequences of this sensitivity, and these are just two possibilities in a wide range of possible manifestations related to an intolerance to this protein.
On top of celiac disease, individuals sensitive to this substance can develop allergies and autoimmune diseases (Dermatitis Herpetiformis and Gluten Ataxia); and non-allergic or non-autoimmune pathologies like non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
On that note, in the 90s, doctors made connections between gluten sensitivity in some individuals and different neurological complications. During the last decade, researchers have dug deeper, studying the development of these as well as the underlying physiopathologic mechanisms.
When it comes to prepackaged foods, the most effective way to find out whether an item contains gluten is by looking at the label. Currently checking the food label is the only way to confirm the absence of this protein. In some countries, this is mandatory because of food industry regulation standards. So, if the product doesn't indicate this, it most likely contains gluten. It's also important to check the back of every product, where the nutrients are listed, to detect foods derived from grains or pseudocereals.
On the same note, another way to avoid or reduce consumption of this protein composite is by incorporating pseudocereals as we mentioned before in your diet. These are an excellent substitute for wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Gluten-free grains like quinoa, corn, and amaranth are actually an essential part of any balanced diet and originate from ancestral precolumbian America and certain parts of Asia.
Gallagher, E., Gormley, T.R. & Arendt, E.K. (2004). Recent advances in the formulation of gluten-free cereal-based products. Trends in Food Science & Technology, (15)3-2: 143-152.
Hadjivassiliou, M., Sanders, D., Grünewald, R., Woodroofe, N., Boscolo, S. & Aeschlimann, D. (2010) Gluten sensitivity: from gut to brain. Neurology, (9)3: 318-330.
Mariotti, M., Lucisano, M., Ambrogina Pagani, M. & K.W.Ng, P. (2009). The role of cornstarch, amaranth flour, pea isolate, and Psyllium flour on the rheological properties and the ultrastructure of gluten-free doughs. Food Research International, 42(8): 963-975.
Molina-Rosell, C. (2013). Alimentos sin glúten derivados de cereales, pp. 447-461. En Rodrigo, L. y Peña, A.S. (Eds.). Enfermedad celíaca y sensibilidad al gluten no celíaca. Barcelona: OmniaScience.
Parada, A. & Araya, M. (2010). History of gluten and its effects on celiac disease. Revista Médica de Chile, 138(10): 1319-1325.
Salazar, J.C., Espin, B., Rodríguez, A., Argüelles, F., García, R., Rubio, M. & Martín, A. (2015). Nutritional assessment of gluten-free diet. Is gluten-free diet deficient in some nutrient?. Anales de Pediatría, (83)1: 33-39.
Saturní, L., Ferretti, G. & Bacchetti, T. (2010). The gluten-free diet: Safety and nutritional quality. Nutrients, 2(1): 16-34.