What is Gluten?  Gluten is a protein present in the starchy part (endosperm) of wheat and several other grains such as barley and rye. Gluten is composed of two proteins called gliadins and glutenins. Gliadins are further identified as a/b, y and w gliadins. These two proteins are made from multiple dozens of amino acids that form peptides and polypeptides which are long chains of amino acids linked together.

       When wheat flour is made into dough to make bread, it is the gluten that gives viscosity and elasticity to the dough allowing it to rise when exposed to yeast.  About 80% of the protein found in wheat is gluten.  Bread bakers often add additional gluten to their flour to enhance the overall texture of the bread. In addition to its role in bread baking, gluten is extracted from wheat and used as a meat substitute. A gluten product called seitan is used as a meat replacement in Asian cooking.  Gluten is often added to food products to enhance protein levels.  It is also used as a stabilizing agent. Beer made from wheat or barley has gluten. 

       The down side of gluten is that in some people the gliadins, when broken down into their individual peptides, cause microscopic openings to occur in the walls of the small intestine. This allows these gliadins and other substances to get into the blood stream where the body sees them as foreign agents and produces antibodies to destroy them. This creates a number of unpleasant reactions such as cramping, abdominal bloating, vomiting, joint pain, migraine headaches, diarrhea, dermatitis, fatigue, mental fog and a host of other systems.  

Celiac disease:  

       While many people experience the above listed symptoms in a mild and sporadic way when eating gluten containing foods, others experience these reactions in a severe way and must totally avoid gluten. Those having severe reactions to gluten are said to have celiac disease which is considered an auto immune disorder because of how the immune system reacts to gluten. It has been determined that it is primarily the three forms of gliadins that are responsible for reactions to gluten. It is estimated that around one percent of the US population has celiac disease but some health professionals suspect the rate is much higher. Some research indicates there has been a four-fold increase in celiac disease in the last 60 years. Celiac disease is identified by testing for antibodies in the blood that are known to be involved with gluten intolerances.  

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivities:

       In recent years, many people who experience symptoms similar to those associated with celiac disease have assumed they are sensitive to gluten and have stopped eating wheat and other gluten containing foods. Most of these people have not been tested for antibodies to gluten which would verify or rule out celiac disease. They have simply assumed their symptoms are related to gluten sensitivity and they need to avoid gluten. Some research indicates around 30% of Americans are striving to eat a gluten-free diet.  As has been true of the low-fat/fat-free craze of recent years, there has developed a similar “herd effect” regarding the avoidance of gluten. People go on a gluten-free diet because “everyone” is doing it.

       In my January/February Newsletter essay entitled “The Pathway to Weight loss,” I discussed studies that show the belief that consumption of saturated fat is a cause of cardiovascular disease and weight gain is a bogus belief. That belief, however, has created an entire industry producing fat free and low fat products.  Now the same has happened with gluten-free products.  Gluten free-products have flooded the marketplace in recent years in response to people believing they need to avoid gluten.   

       Gluten-free products are certainly a blessing to those with diagnosed celiac disease where gluten intolerance has been clearly identified. Among the millions of others who have embarked on a gluten-free diet, the need to be on such a diet is often based on speculation that it is gluten that is the cause of their symptoms. It must be noted, however, that there are other elements in wheat and other gluten containing grains that can cause the symptoms mentioned above.

       A recent study at Columbia University showed that people with celiac disease had a negative immune reaction to several groups of non-gluten proteins found in wheat. Another recent study indicated it was not the gluten in wheat but certain complex carbohydrates that was causing symptoms comparable to the symptoms experienced by those identified as having celiac disease.

       In view of such studies and the fact there are no tests for definitively identifying non-celiac gluten sensitivities, it may be prudent not to rush to judgment as to gluten being the culprit when experiencing the kind of symptoms associated with diagnosed celiac disease.  On the other hand, if you are experiencing symptoms that are generally experienced by those having diagnosed celiac disease, it would be wise to avoid wheat and other gluten containing grains for a period of time in order to determine if the symptoms disappear.  If your symptoms do disappear, it doesn’t prove it is the gluten that caused the symptoms but it would indicate that something in the gluten containing foods was responsible for your discomfort. 

Wheat Sensitivities:

       Wheat has been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years. Consumption of wheat in America currently stands at about 132 pounds per person per year. While symptoms like those associated with celiac are recorded as occurring as far back as the first century A.D., it is only in recent years that consumption of wheat has become the suspected cause of a number of physiological and even psychological problems.  Because recent research has identified components of wheat other than gluten as possible culprits in producing distress, some health professionals are beginning to speak in terms of wheat sensitivities rather than non-celiac gluten sensitivities or intolerances. 

       Why has wheat, with its long history of consumption, suddenly become suspect as a causative factor in a variety of human ailments?  Some health professionals believe the marked increase in celiac disease and various distresses associated with wheat consumption is associated with what has been done to wheat.  In the past 50 years or so, a great deal of hybridization has taken place with wheat in an effort to create varieties that produce greater yields. In recent years genetic modification has been done to enable wheat to survive adverse weather conditions and resist herbicide and pesticide applications.  These interventions have created new genetic configurations in wheat that in turn have produced new configurations of amino acids that make up gluten and other wheat proteins. Some believe these new configurations are raising havoc with our physiology.

       A comprehensive discussion of this issue can be found in the books “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis and “Grain Brain” by Dr. David Perlmutter.  Both these books are available at Milk ‘N Honey.


       Manufacturers can apply the term gluten-free to any product that contains less than twenty parts per million of gluten. This is the government standard in the US, Canada and Europe. It has been determined that this standard is adequate in preventing the symptoms associated with celiac disease. However, many “gluten-free” foods presently being produced are at risk for contamination from gluten containing foods when both types of foods are produced in the same general area. This is especially true in fast food establishments were both “gluten-free” and gluten containing foods are prepared in the same kitchen. 

       It should also be noted that gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Manufactures often use corn, rice or potato starch as a replacement for wheat flour.  These starches’ are highly refined carbohydrates and quickly convert to glucose in the digestive process. Sometimes additional sugar, salt, fats and chemicals of various kinds are added to gluten-free products to make up for the missing gluten. Some gluten-free products have been shown to have more calories than their gluten containing cousins.  Other gluten-free products have been shown to have a weaker nutritional profile than their gluten containing counterparts.

Gluten Free and Weight loss:

       Some have attributed weight loss to going on a gluten-free diet.  There is no good reason to believe it is the absence of the gluten in such a diet that is responsible for one’s loss of weight.  Gluten is a protein and as such would not play much of a role in either weight gain or weight loss.  The reason weight can be lost on a gluten-free diet is that gluten-free diets often lead to a reduction in the consumption of carbohydrates and since excess carbs convert to fat in the body, a reduction in carbohydrate consumption will lead to weight loss.  Go to my essay, “The Pathway to Weight Loss” for an in-depth discussion of the relationship between carbohydrate and weight management.

What can I Eat? 

       If you have celiac disease or have determined you feel better on a gluten-free diet, you can still enjoy grain based products. Grains such as amaranth, millet, quinoa, corn, oats and rice do not have gluten. Quinoa has the highest protein content of all the grains and is an excellent source of nutrition. While oats don’t have gluten, oat products are often processed with the same equipment used to process wheat and there is the risk of cross contamination.

What Should You Do?

       Many people with various physical and psychological disorders have seen a reduction in the severity of such disorders or their complete disappearance when removing wheat and other gluten containing foods from their diets. This being the case, it is certainly prudent to give a gluten/wheat-free diet a try to see if there is improvement in your health.  If no improvement is experienced, it is probably unnecessary to continue on a gluten-free diet and other reasons for not feeling well should be explored.