What is gluten? Where is it found and how can we react to it?

Many people are now asking "What is Gluten?" as the word gluten and the term gluten-free are popping up on the packaging of many of our foods in the supermarket.

Gluten is the main structural protein complex found in wheat, barley and rye and derivatives of these grains e.g. kamut, spelt and cous-cous. There is also a very similar protein to gluten found in oats.

Gluten is made up of 2 main proteins – Gliadin and Glutenin. It is possible to be allergic to either one of these, and in addition to this Gliadin is made up of 12 smaller units and sensitivity to any one of these smaller units can also cause inflammation in the body!

Grains containing gluten are very widely used in baking because of the elastic, glue-like structure they provide, helping dough rise and keep its shape and providing an end product with a chewy texture.

The word Gluten is derived from the latin word for Glue!

Gluten is also very commonly used as a stabilizing agent in processed foods to provide a smooth texture and prevent curdling.

There is a spectrum of ways in which sensitivity to gluten can show up in the body

  • Coeliac Disease – (pronounced see-liac, spelt Celiac in the US) – is an auto-immune mediated condition whereby the ingestion of gluten causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. It is a common condition and affects at least 1 in 100 people. Dr. David Perlmutter suggests the number is probably closer to 1 in 30 due to many people remaining undiagnosed.[i]

  • Wheat Allergy – is an allergic response to gluten. Baker’s asthma, a type of wheat allergy, is one of the most prevalent occupational allergies in many countries. Other allergic responses to gluten can involve atopic dermatitis, urticaria and anaphylaxis.

  • Gluten Sensitivity – It is possible to react to gluten with no apparent allergic or auto-immune involvement (this kind of reaction won’t be picked up by the current tests for coeliac disease or wheat allergy). These kinds of reactions are generally referred to as gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance.

The article What is gluten sensitivity? expands on this subject and includes common signs and symptoms associated with it.

It is a historical misconception that gluten sensitivity primarily affects the small intestine – it can occur without noticeable gut involvement with symptoms actually showing up neurologically and via the skin.

Increasingly, people are going gluten free and finding that it helps them to lose weight, keep their mood more balanced, their mind clearer and their body more vital.

Having an understanding of what gluten is and its possible adverse effects can help us build a better relationship with our body. If you have any symptoms that you think may be linked to consuming gluten, experiment with cutting gluten out of your diet for a few weeks and see if the symptoms improve.

Check out these yummy gluten-free recipes for inspiration.

The information in this article is for general purposes only. For specific medical advice, we recommend you consult your doctor.

  • [i]

    Perlmutter, D. (2013). Grain Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company


Coeliac org UK About coeliac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis

Sapone, A. et al (2012). Spectrum of Gluten-Related Disorders: Consensus on New Nomenclature and Classification. BMC Medicine, 10(13)

Filed under

Coeliac/celiacDigestionGluten freeNutritionWell-beingHealthy living Food science

  • Photography: Clayton Lloyd