What is Gluten?
It’s no longer uncommon to hear someone say, “No thanks, I’m gluten-free.” But how much do you think they know about wheat protein?
Comments (1)Posted by Beth Hillson
The gluten-free diet is trendy these days. But ask most people if they can tell you what gluten is, and they will shrug their shoulders.
No surprise, since you can’t see, taste or smell gluten. And that’s the gluten-free conundrum. If you are seriously gluten free because of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, locating the foods that contain gluten (or don’t) can be a challenge.
Exactly what is gluten? Gluten is a complex of many proteins and some fats. Most of the proteins are of the prolamin type, which cereal grains (wheat, rye and barley) use to store energy in their seeds. Literally hundreds of different prolamins found in wheat gluten (many more in rye and barley) contain amino acid sequences capable of triggering an immune response if someone has celiac disease.
Ever notice that glue and gluten sound similar? Gluten means glue in Latin. It’s literally a sticky protein, the glue, that creates elasticity in things like pizza and bread. Without it, baked goods are crumbly and often taste dry and starchy. (Thankfully, we can use a blend of gluten-free flours and starches plus a pinch of xanthan or guar gum to add back some elasticity. To find out more about baking tips, take a look at some of our recipes on Gluten Free and More’s website.
Scientists haven’t figured out why this “glue” makes some people sick, but we know it triggers an autoimmune response in a small percentage of us. About 1% of the population has celiac disease and a larger number of people are sensitive to gluten but do not have an autoimmune response. We also know the only treatment for both conditions is to avoid gluten completely.
To do that, we need to understand where gluten resides. Simply put, gluten is in all foods made from wheat, rye, barley and oats unless the oats are grown in dedicated fields and harvested using dedicated equipment.
But gluten hides in a lot of other foods, like most beer (barley), soy sauce (fermented with wheat), and licorice. And it comes in many forms.
Here are some forms of wheat that might catch you off guard:
- Triticale (a cross-breed of wheat and rye)
- Graham flour
- Wheat starch (unless it tests below 20 ppm)
And here are some other foods that you will need to verify if they are not clearly labeled gluten free.
- Barbecue Sauce
- Corn Tortillas (may contain flour or be processed on shared equipment)
- Brewer’s Yeast (might be from barley)
- Salad Dressing and marinades
- Seasoned Rice Mixes
- Spice Blends
- Soups and Gravies
- French Fries (often coated with wheat)
- Miso (may be fermented with barley)
- Medicines (some fillers contain gluten)
- Vitamins and Supplements (may contain gluten)
Fortunately, you no longer need to be a master detective to understand all the foods that contain gluten. We have help from two labeling rules. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) tells us if a product contains wheat. Avoid these. FALCPA doesn’t call out rye, barley or oats. Even if a product does not say contains wheat, it may contain one of these other unsafe ingredients.
The FDA’s Gluten-Free Labeling Rule tells us a product contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten and that the company can scientifically verify that. A third-party certification on a package lets us know a product was tested separately by them. While the levels vary, all these programs set a level that is even lower than that set by the FDA.
However, before you go out to buy products, remember your diet and your health rests in your hands. Always double check labels as each circumstance is unique, ingredients can change, and products can be mislabeled. For example, if a product says gluten free and the ingredient list contains barley malt or soy sauce that is not specified as wheat-free, it’s likely unsafe for you.
While celiac and gluten sensitive folks still must be vigilant and knowledgeable, options for the gluten free diet has progressed by leaps and bounds. A diet that used to mean no pasta, pizza, bread or birthday cake, now includes great gluten-free alternatives that are tasty and safe.
For more info check out these resources:
Beth is the author of The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten-Free (DaCapo 2014).