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What Is Gluten?

Karen Frazier

Gluten is not just one substance. Instead, it is a category name for the proteins found in cereal grains. It contains a mixture of proteins (more than 100) that gives dough made with gluten-containing grains its elastic texture, which is why it is so valuable in foods such as bread and pasta. Not all cereal grains contain gluten, but some do, and others have substances that you may react to similarly to gluten if you are sensitive.

Types of Gluten Proteins

There are two primary types of gluten proteins:

  • Gliadins are soluble.
  • Glutenins are insoluble.

Both are a source of irritation for people with various types of gluten sensitivities or intolerances (such as celiac disease). The type of proteins causing the biggest adverse reactions seem to be gliadins, which contain other proteins such as prolamins, which are in many grains in various forms, including wheat, barley, rye, corn, oats and sorghum. In fact, some grains containing different prolamins than those found in gluten grains may cause reactions similar to gluten in sensitive individuals, so if you've eliminated the usual suspects of wheat, rye, and barley but you are still having issues, it may be prolamins in other grains that are the issue. An elimination diet can help you determine if that is the case.

Which Grains Contain Gluten

Gluten is found in the endosperm of certain grains. Grains that contain gluten include:

  • Wheat (including triticale, spelt, kamut, durum, einkorn and farro)
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Any grains processed on the same equipment or possibly in the same factory as any of the above grains

Oats and Gluten

Often, you'll see oats listed as containing gluten, as well. While oats are naturally gluten-free, they are typically processed with gluten-containing grains, which makes cross contamination a probability. Therefore, if you have a sensitivity to gluten, it is essential you look for oats that are certified gluten-free. Oats also contain prolamins that are similar to gluten, which may cause issues in susceptible individuals.

Corn and Gluten

You'll often see a product labeled "corn gluten." This is a colloquial term, and corn doesn't contain either gliadins or glutenins, however, it does contain prolamins. Because of this, some evidence suggests proteins in corn may still cause a gluten-like response in sensitive individuals. It's important you determine your sensitivities. If you've given up gluten and still have issues, corn may be the culprit.

Why Avoid Gluten?

Some people have a sensitivity to gluten. While there are several ways this may manifest, the most common ways are celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). People with these conditions must avoid all gluten, as well as cross contamination, or they may have a powerful reaction. For example, in people with celiac disease, ingesting even trace amounts of gluten damages the villi in the intestines, which causes gastrointestinal issues and makes it increasingly difficult for the body to absorb nutrients from food. People with NCGS also cannot ingest even trace amounts of gluten because they will have severe symptoms.

Some other populations may avoid gluten for various reasons, as well, including people:

  • On the autism spectrum
  • With autoimmune disorders and inflammation
  • Who have wheat allergies or other gluten sensitivities

If you are in any of these populations, talk with your health care provider about whether avoiding gluten could make a difference in your health.

How to Avoid Gluten

If you fall into any of the above populations and you need to avoid gluten, there are several things you need to do:

Educate Yourself

If you are sensitive to gluten, it's important you learn as much as you can about the ways your body could react to these proteins. In cases of true gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, ingesting even a trace amount can have serious detrimental effects on your health in both the short and long terms.

What Is Gluten?