What on Earth is Gluten, Anyway?

Sep 25, 2015Articles, FODMAP basics

Gluten has been a hot topic for long enough now that most people have heard of it. But what is it exactly? When I gave up wheat, rye, and barley (which are gluten-containing grains) about a year and a half ago, I thought I knew what gluten was. Turns out that I had no idea.

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Since then, I’ve met many people who are equally as confused as I once was. And chances are, even if you haven’t given up gluten, you know someone who has, or at the very least you’ve had a conversation about it. With this post, I’d like to give a brief overview of gluten, and clear up some of the confusion!

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Alright. So. What on earth is gluten? And why does it cause so many problems?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley grains.

(Remember the protein bit — it’ll be important in a sec.) In Latin, “gluten” means “glue,” and that’s literally what it is. Gluten holds the stuffs in baked goods together so they can rise without falling apart! If you’ve ever tried to make gluten-free bread before, you’ll know this painfully well. Without gluten, bread will collapse and become a dense, crumbly mess. (RIP the many sandwich loaves I’ve thrown in the trash…)

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So what’s the issue with gluten? In celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder, a person’s body essentially attacks the gluten, causing all sorts of trouble. (I’m not going to go into detail on celiac, because honestly I’m no expert on the subject. You can read more about it on wikipedia here and from the Celiac Disease Foundation here.)

For people with digestive issues like myself, the situation is somewhat different. My life isn’t in danger if I have gluten, my stomach just feels really unhappy. This is where it gets (even more) confusing. I’d read that a wheat-free diet is helpful for people with IBS and digestive problems. Naturally, I assumed the problem was gluten.

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But protein (gluten is protein, remember) isn’t the only thing wheat is made of — think about what bread and pasta are infamous for. Carbs! And if you remember from the last time we talked about science, carbs are my issue. Specifically, there are carbs called fructans that my body has trouble digesting. In a very confusing turn of events, fructans are also found in all the grains that contain gluten — wheat, rye, and barley.

Is your head spinning yet? Let’s do a recap:

  1. Gluten is a protein.
  2. Fructans are carbs.
  3. They’re both found in wheat, rye, & barley.
  4. People with celiac have issues with gluten.
  5. People like myself with IBS have issues with fructans.

So I still can’t eat “normal” wheat sandwich bread, or cereal, or pasta, so perhaps you’re wondering why this all matters. But here’s the thing: there exists “vital wheat gluten,” which is essentially gluten extracted from the wheat. No bothersome fructans, just the gluten protein. Remember, gluten acts as the glue that holds everything together. I realized that adding gluten back into gluten-free flours would help my baked goods hold together! That’s why if you go back and look at my pizza or chocolate chip cookie recipes, you’ll notice vital wheat gluten as one of the ingredients. These recipes are not suitable for people with celiac, obviously, but I can eat them without trouble.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that gluten isn’t the problem — it is for people who have celiac disease, but it isn’t for me. However, I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t have celiac who sometimes (or all the time) eat gluten-free because they feel better afterward. Is gluten-free just a trend? I think it’s more than that, and for me, eating wheat-free is part of living a happy life. But perhaps gluten isn’t so evil; perhaps there are other things playing into the situation (fructans in my case, maybe something else in your case). I’m not sure and I think only time + research will tell. In the meantime, I’ll keep making gluten-free + gluten pizza, and cookies (and hopefully one day sandwich bread).

What do you think? Do you ever eat gluten-free, and have you ever found yourself confused about gluten?

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