What is gluten and can it harm you?

'What is gluten?' I bet this was the first question you asked your doctor, when you were diagnosed with celiac disease. Would I be right?

If so, you may have got a vague reply that went something along the lines of... 'it is found in wheat, barley and rye.' Not all that helpful, eh?

What does it do?

Have you ever made wheat bread at home? Did you knead the dough by pulling and stretching it until it was  smooth? It stretches a bit like elastic doesn't it?

The thing that makes the dough stretchy is the gluten. Without it, the ingredients would not bind together into a dough that you could knead in this way.

Where is it found?

Gluten is basically the protein content of wheat (including spelt, semolina and durum) barley, rye and triticale (a hybrid).

Known collectively as prolamins, these proteins have different names depending on the grain they are found in - gliadin in wheat, secalin in rye and hordein in barley.

Why is it bad for you?

If you have Celiac disease they cause the gaps between the cells in the small intestine to open too wide and allow toxins and gluten fragments into the bloodstream also known as leaky gut syndrome.

Some people can also develop non-celiac gluten intolerance, where they encounter similar symptoms but without the autoimmune inflammation.

Attack! Attack!

These particles are seen as alien invaders by the body, and are therefore attacked.

Due to its autoimmune nature, Celiac disease also attacks the body itself, causing inflammation and damage to the inside of the small intestine.

The normal small intestine features small hair-like projections along its length known as villi. These increase the surface area and therefore assist in the absorption of the nutrients that the body needs to stay healthy. The first photo represents these healthy, upright villi.

The celiac autoimmune response causes so much damage to these villi (in some cases flattening them entirely) that they are no longer effective, as represented by the second photo. There are tests for celiac disease that will check what condition the villi are in.

However, all is not lost! Changing over to a gluten free diet will allow your body to repair itself, and your health will improve tremendously.

What is gluten and does anyone need it?

Guten is not an essential part of anyone's diet.

Our hunter/gatherer ancestors managed perfectly well without it! Then they started growing and harvesting cereal crops.

They discovered that they could grind wheat into flour, bread soon became a staple food. Over the years we have incorporated more and more of it into our daily diet.

In fact, some quite surprising foods are found to contain gluten when we start thinking about it!  Cakes and cookies are perhaps obvious, but what about soups and sausages?

You might want to check out my foods containing gluten page when you have finished reading this, for a full list.

Manufacturers are quite clever at disguising gluten by listing it as an obscure ingredient. If you are to avoid gluten you will need to know what to look for.


New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.