Define Gluten

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
A loaf of wheat bread.

Gluten is a group of naturally occurring sticky proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a crossbreed of wheat and rye), and food products containing these grains as ingredients. Gluten acts like glue holding foods together, giving them elasticity, and allowing them to maintain their shapes. However, while many people tolerate gluten well, others need to steer clear of it for health reasons.

Which Foods Contain Gluten?

A number of foods and products contain gluten, even those you might not expect. Gluten-containing foods include:

  • Wheat
  • Wheatberries
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Triticale
  • Spelt
  • Semolina
  • Graham flour
  • Durum
  • Emmer
  • Farina
  • Farro
  • Kamut
  • Einkorn wheat
  • Malt
  • Flours (unless labeled gluten-free)
  • Vitamins and medications containing gluten (as a binding agent)
  • Some food additives (modified food starch, malt, malt extract, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrin, and malt flavoring)
  • Soups, sauces, and gravies (unless labeled gluten-free)
  • Breads, bagels, flour tortillas, dumplings, French toast, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, crepes, pastas, cakes, pies, cereals, oats, oatmeal, cookies, croutons, crackers, pretzels, French fries, potato chips, candies, candy bars, granola, muffins, doughnuts, and granola bars (unless labeled gluten-free)
  • Soy sauce, salad dressings, marinades, and malt vinegar (unless labeled gluten-free)
  • Processed lunch meats, imitation seafood, other imitation meats, and veggie burgers (unless labeled gluten-free)
  • Beer (unless labeled gluten-free)
  • Brewer's yeast

How Gluten Is Added to Products

Gluten is sometimes added to foods that don't naturally contain it. Due to its glue-like properties, gluten is often used as a binding agent, helping hold foods together. Gluten-containing starches and flours may also be added as thickening agents. Examples of gluten-containing food additives to avoid include malt flavoring, malt extract, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, modified food starch, dextrin, and many types of flour. Gluten can also get into foods processed in facilities that manufacture gluten-containing foods by means of cross contamination. That's why it's so important to make sure the label on your favorite foods specifically states "gluten-free" if you have celiac disease or are extremely sensitive to gluten.

Who Should Avoid Gluten?

If you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, avoid gluten to prevent negative side effects.

Celiac Disease

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports as many as 3 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that damages the small intestinal lining in response to eating gluten. This can cause malabsorption of essential nutrients, anemia, infertility, stunted growth in children, digestive problems, weight loss, osteoporosis, tooth damage, skin rashes, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, joint pain, migraines, depression, foggy mind, seizures, ADHD-like behavior, irritability, and other behavioral changes, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

Gluten Sensitivity

Even if you don't have celiac disease, if you're sensitive to gluten, you might still experience unpleasant side effects after eating gluten-containing foods. People with gluten sensitivity, who test negative for celiac disease may experience the same symptoms as people with celiac disease, such as digestive problems, behavior changes, chronic fatigue, and headaches just to name a few. Intestinal cell damage may also occur in people with gluten sensitivity (as with celiac disease).

Wheat Allergy

If you have a wheat allergy, eating wheat, wheat proteins, and products containing wheat may cause serious (even life threatening) side effects. These may include hives, headaches, cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, swelling of the throat, itching, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, chest tightness or pain, dizziness, fainting, and a fast heartbeat.

Going Gluten-Free

Gluten isn't a bad thing unless you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy. If this is the case for you, choose only gluten-free foods -and be sure to look for "gluten-free" on food labels, as gluten is a hidden ingredient in many foods you might not think contain it.

Define Gluten