What Is Gluten and What Does It Do?
Gluten seems to be in just about everything, from bread, pasta and beer to cosmetics and nutritional supplements. There’s lots of buzz around avoiding gluten, but what is this common ingredient and is it really bad for you? Johns Hopkins specialist in internal medicine and obesity Selvi Rajagopal, M.D., explains facts and misconceptions about gluten.
What is gluten?
“Gluten is a protein found in the wheat plant and some other grains,” explains Rajagopal.
Gluten is naturally occurring, but it can be extracted, concentrated and added to food and other products to add protein, texture and flavor. It also works as a binding agent to hold processed foods together and give them shape.
Where does gluten come from?
In addition to wheat, gluten also comes from rye, barley and triticale (a cross between rye and barley). Sometimes it’s in oats, but only because the oats may have been processed with other foods that contain gluten. Oats themselves don’t contain gluten.
What does gluten do to your body?
Humans have digestive enzymes that help us break down food. Protease is the enzyme that helps our body process proteins, but it can’t completely break down gluten. Undigested gluten makes its way to the small intestine. Most people can handle the undigested gluten with no problems. But in some people, gluten can trigger a severe autoimmune response or other unpleasant symptoms.
An autoimmune response to gluten is called celiac disease. Celiac can damage the small intestine. Some people who don’t have celiac disease still seem to feel sick after eating foods that contain gluten. They may experience bloating, diarrhea, headaches or skin rashes. This could be a reaction to poorly digested carbohydrates, not just gluten. These carbs, called FODMAPS, ferment in your gut. People with sensitive guts may experience discomfort from that fermentation, not necessarily from gluten.
Research suggests that some people could have small intestines that don’t work properly. The lining might be too permeable, allowing some undigested gluten, bacteria or other substances to go through the lining and into the bloodstream, causing inflammation.
Is gluten bad for you?
“There’s a lot of confusion about gluten being an evil food. Gluten isn’t inherently bad for most people,” says Rajagopal. “We, as humans, have consumed gluten for as long as people have been making bread. For centuries, foods with gluten have been providing people with protein, soluble fiber and nutrients.”
Gluten in itself, especially gluten found in whole grains, is not bad for healthy people whose bodies can tolerate it. However, grains like wheat are often stripped down to make processed foods such as snack crackers and potato chips. “These refined products have very little resemblance to the actual wheat plant, which is actually highly nutritious,” explains Rajagopal. “They tend to contain things like white rice flour and starches, but not whole grains.”
Many people who adopt a gluten-free diet but still eat processed foods find they continue to have weight gain, blood sugar swings and other health issues. So it’s not the gluten in foods that’s causing their health issues, but the sodium, sugar and other additives in processed foods.
Who should avoid gluten?
Rajagopal says gluten can be harmful to people with:
- Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine in people who consume gluten.
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (gluten intolerance), which is gastrointestinal irritation caused by gluten in people who don’t have celiac disease.
- Wheat allergy, an allergy to wheat, but not to all grains or to gluten itself.
- Gluten ataxia, a rare neurological autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack parts of your brain in response to gluten.
What should I do if I think I have a gluten problem?
Talk to a physician if you think gluten could be affecting your health. Your doctor may suggest blood tests to detect celiac disease or a wheat allergy. Before cutting gluten out of your diet, work with a registered dietitian to build an eating plan that’s right for you.