Gluten is a name for storage proteins found in multiple grains and foods. These proteins helps to hold dough together, giving the elastic quality that is essential in the cooking process. While gluten is found in many grains including all wheat, barley, and rye-containing foods, it is also used in items like lipstick and Playdough. Although there are some people who cannot consume gluten due to conditions such as wheat allergy or celiac disease, there are many people who avoid gluten when they have no such condition or reason to, per the cultural trends of today.
Chemistry of Gluten
Wheat flour contains proteins called glutenins (which are insoluble) and gliadins (which are soluble), each in a "frozen state". When water is added to the flour (in a process called hydration), the two proteins come out of that state, becoming more flexible, similarly to when noodles become flexible after you cook them. These proteins begin to bond chemically, forming cross-links. These connections include ionic bonds, hydrogen bonds, and the stronger disulfide bonds. The proteins stick together, in what is known as the formation of gluten.
These cross-links are what make dough have the texture that it has. As more cross-links are formed, there soon forms a whole network of bonds that increases as the dough is kneaded. The aligned proteins, flexible and hydrated, allow for more cross-links to form, and kneading also allows air to be added to the mix, which allows very strong disulfide bonds to be formed. After sufficient kneading, the networks form sheets of proteins, which is essentially the weaving of networks together. As a result of all this, gluten is both stretchable and elastic.
After gluten has been made and sheets have been formed in bread dough, common practice is to allow the dough to rest and rise. One culprit responsible for the rising of bread is yeast, a fungus that is single-celled and runs on sugar. This fungus produces carbon dioxide bubbles, which in turn causes the dough to rise. The gluten is crucial in this step. Gluten works hand in hand with yeast, as it traps the bubbles that yeast forms (due to the elasticity of the dough). Without the aid of gluten, the dough would need a substitute to allow the yeast bubbles to be caught. Xanthan gum is one alternative that is used in gluten-free cooking practices. When the bread is actually baking, the dough is so elastic that while gas is heated, shape is maintained. While the hot air rises, bubbles are formed in the inside of the bread, while the outer shell hardens. This accounts for texture inside and outside of the bread.
In general, gluten accounts for the physical properties of whatever contains it. Cooks and bakers often account for the different types of flours and mixing times to achieve the desired effect in food preparation.
Celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue, coeliac disease, non-tropical sprue, or gluten sensitive enteropathy, is a serious autoimmune disorder that causes the consumption of even a small amount of gluten to lead to damage to the walls of the small intestine. When a person has celiac disease, the body views gluten as an intruder and attacks itself in the small intestine every time it is consumed. As a result, the villi (small projections that promote the absorption of nutrients in digested food) are permanently damaged. When this happens, a person's body cannot receive the nutrients it needs to function properly.
Celiac disease is hereditary, and those with a sibling, child, or parent with the condition have a 10% chance of developing the condition. However, in all celiac disease only affects about 1% of the population of the world.
There is no cure for celiac disease except for a strict gluten-free diet, as continued consumption of gluten, even in crumb-sized doses, can result in permanent intestinal damage, long-term complications, and death.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the large intestine. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, mucus in the stool, and excess flatulence. There are multiple causes for IBS, including abnormal muscular contractions in the intestine, abnormalities in the nervous system, intestinal inflammation, changes in microflora in the intestine, or severe infections like gastroenteritis or bacterial overgrowth.
IBS is a condition that has multiple triggers that can aggravate the condition. Stress, hormones, and food are all possible triggers. Gluten in particular is not a cause or trigger of IBS, though a person may choose to avoid gluten if they and their doctor decide that gluten-filled foods are a common trigger of their symptoms.
This condition is a life-long responsibility, however most people do not have severe symptoms and can control it with a few adjustments to their lifestyle.
- Nasal congestion
- Swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat
- Cramps, nausea or vomiting
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Hives, itchy rash or swelling of the skin
Anaphylaxis is a very serious and life-threatening allergic reaction, occurring anywhere from a few minutes to a few seconds after being exposed to an allergen. Anaphylaxis causes a flood of chemicals to be released by the immune system, which can make your body go into shock. When this happens, your airways narrow and your blood pressure drops. If a person shows any sign of anaphylaxis, call 911 or an alternate local emergency number, as the reaction requires immediate care or it could be fatal.
In addition to other symptoms of Wheat Allergy, anaphylaxis may cause:
- Trouble with swallowing
- Swelling or tightness of throat
- Fast heartbeat
- Severe difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or tightness
- Dizziness or fainting
- Pale, blue skin color
Gluten Ataxia is an autoimmune disorder that creates issues with voluntary muscle movement and control, as it effects nerve tissue. This is a truth for all forms of ataxia, with the difference in this case being that gluten is the trigger. This condition damages the cerebellum (the part of the brain that's in charge of motor control, balance, and muscle tone) irreversibly with antibodies. This is because, like Celiac Disease, people with Gluten Ataxia have immune systems that view gluten as a threat, sending white blood cells to attack and destroy. While it is slow in progression, MRI scans of patients with Gluten Ataxia show cerebellar atrophy (shrinking of the cerebellum). The condition is newly-defined, and therefore not accepted by all physicians as of yet. General Ataxia only effects around 8.4 out of every 100,000 people in the United States, so the gluten-spurred-variety is even more rare. As for treatment, patients must follow a strict gluten-free diet, to prevent future damage.
Gluten Sensitivity is an often self-diagnosed condition wherein a person suffers multiple symptoms in common with those that suffer with Celiac Disease, but have little physical proof for their turmoil. These people claim symptoms like joint pain, "foggy mind", numbness in legs, arms, or fingers, headache, and digestive discomfort. Gluten Sensitivity is considered less severe than Celiac Disease, as the sensitivity-sufferers experience minimal-to-no intestinal damage after gluten consumption, which is much better than when a Celiac-sufferer consumers gluten. All these symptoms go away with a gluten-free diet, though there is some controversy as to whether this sensitivity is real or whether it's entirely psychological.
The Nocebo Effect, often overshadowed by it's more famous counterpart, the Placebo Effect, is an effect that takes a person's negative expectations about what a substance will do to their body and makes those expectations into a reality. Essentially, when a person has a negative predisposition about what something will do to them (one example being, that gluten will give them digestive troubles) then the person is more likely to seemingly experience that negative effect, even if it makes no physical sense. This effect has been closely studied and tested, and, much like the Placebo Effect, it is not entirely understood.
This concept is very important, as the cultural stipulations and fear of gluten has contributed to the amount of people that claim to possess "gluten sensitivities" or other similarly-worded, un-diagnosed conditions regarding the consumption of gluten. In fact, a man named Peter Gibson did a study as a follow-up on another study that had previously led many to believe that non-celiac gluten-sensitivities were not only a possibility, but a reality. However, upon proceeding with a follow-up study wherein a group of self-identified gluten-sensitive patients were fed a cycle of meal plans that varied from gluten-full to gluten-lacking, it was concluded that it was simply the Nocebo Effect that was responsible for their "gluten sensitivity". In fact, these patients claimed that they had gastrointestinal upset with every meal plan. Upon even further examination with all urine and fecal samples, it was clear that there was no way these patients were sensitive to gluten if they claimed gluten-related upset-- especially when there was no gluten present.
There are many derivatives of wheat. These derivatives include:
Foods that commonly contain wheat include:
- baked goods
- salad dressing
Foods that contain barley include:
- malted barely flour
- malt syrup
- malted milk and milkshakes
- malt flavoring
- malt extract
- food coloring
Foods that contain rye include:
- rye bread (for example, pumpernickel)
- rye beer
Other Notable Sources
Triticale is a cross of rye and wheat. It is notable for having the tolerance when growing that rye possesses and the quality that wheat bears. Foods that contain triticale include:
Oats, while they do not specifically contain gluten, can be cross-contaminated when grown as their fields are often kept adjacent to nearby gluten-containing grains. When shopping for gluten-free food options, consumers are encouraged to seek oat-containing foods that are explicitly labeled "gluten-free" to avoid cross-contamination.Other items that may contain gluten include:
- communion wafers
- drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter)
- nutritional or Herbal supplements
- lipstick, lip balm, and lipgloss
- supplements and vitamins
Is eating 'Gluten-Free' actually good for you?
What's the big deal, anyway?
And what's so bad about it?
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