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What Is Gluten?

  • Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye that plays a vital role in the texture, appearance, and structure of many foods.
  • Some individuals must avoid gluten due to medical conditions such as celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
  • Gluten can cause several health issues for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, including malnutrition and other serious problems.
  • A gluten-free diet excludes all products containing wheat, barley, and rye but still allows for a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and most dairy products.
  • Gluten-free foods like corn, potatoes and rice are good alternatives for those who need to avoid gluten.

What’s the Issue with Gluten?

While gluten is a fundamental part of many delicious foods, it’s important to note that some individuals need to avoid it due to medical conditions such as celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For these individuals, consuming gluten can lead to several health issues.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the protein damages a part of the small intestine, making it nearly impossible for them to absorb nutrients. Because of this, celiac disease can lead to malnutrition and several other serious health issues.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a disorder that describes individuals who can’t tolerate gluten but lack the antibodies and intestinal damage associated with celiac disease.

What Foods Contain Gluten?

You can find gluten in wheat, barley, rye, and any product made with these ingredients. You can also find gluten in foods you wouldn’t expect, such as soups and sauces. Sometimes, it hides in processed foods as an additive to control thickness and texture. Gluten can also hide in other products, such as certain medications and personal hygiene products.

If you’re on a gluten-free diet, reading food labels is an important skill to develop. Learn the basics with our llabel reading guide. You can also call the product manufacturer directly with your questions. Finally, our “Is It Gluten-Free?” section is a great resource if you’re curious about the gluten content of foods like ice cream, soy sauce, alcohol, etc.

What Does Gluten Do?

Gluten is vital to the texture, appearance, and structure of many foods, including baked goods, pasta, and more.

Elasticity: Gluten is responsible for the elasticity of dough. When you mix flour with water, the gluten proteins (glutenin and gliadin) combine to form a network. This network gives dough its stretchiness and allows it to trap carbon dioxide gas produced by yeast. This trapped gas heats and expands, causing the dough to rise.

Structure: Gluten plays a crucial role in maintaining the structural integrity of baked goods. While making bread, gluten development is essential in creating an airy and firm loaf. Furthermore, gluten helps retain moisture and prevents baked goods from becoming too crumbly.

In the early days of gluten-free cooking, many baked goods were either too dry and crumbly or too dense and compact without gluten. Luckily, innovations in food science have led to the wide variety of delicious, gluten-free baked goods that we have today.

Chewiness: Besides elasticity and structure, gluten contributes to the chewiness of certain baked goods, like bagels and pizza crusts. The presence of gluten gives these items a satisfying, slightly chewy texture.

Versatility: Gluten’s unique properties make it a versatile ingredient in the culinary world. It allows people to create various products, including bread, pastries, pasta, pizza crust, and more. Kneading or manipulating different types of wheat can yield differing textures in the final product, from soft and tender in cakes to crusty and chewy in artisan bread.

What are Glutenin and Gliadin?

Glutenin and gliadin are the two primary proteins found in gluten. These proteins have distinct functions in developing gluten’s structure and properties.

Glutenin contributes to the elasticity and strength of gluten. Glutenin molecules are long, chain-like structures that form when you mix flour and water. These chains give the dough its elasticity and allow it to stretch without tearing.

Gliadin is the other primary protein found in gluten. It contributes to making bread dough more viscous and stretchy. It plays a crucial role in trapping gas in bread dough, which is necessary for breadmaking.

Together, glutenin and gliadin work in harmony to create the unique properties of gluten, making it ideal for various baked goods such as bread, pastries, pasta, and more.

Gluten-Free Alternatives

There are many grains, flours, and starches that don’t contain gluten. They can, therefore, be consumed by those on a gluten-free diet. These include:

However, people with celiac disease should consider all grains “high risk” for cross-contact because they are often grown, milled, and manufactured near gluten-containing grains. “Cross-contact” occurs when a gluten-containing food touches a gluten-free food. Even tiny amounts of gluten can cause damage to the small intestine and prevent nutrients from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Whenever possible, purchase naturally gluten-free grains, flours, and starches that are labeled gluten-free and certified gluten-free by a third party.

The Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet excludes all products containing wheat, barley, and rye. Those who are gluten-free can still enjoy a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and most dairy products. Such ingredients are naturally gluten-free and safe for individuals who do not have allergies to these respective food groups.

Learn more:

Gluten F.A.Q.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten acts like a glue and gives dough its elasticity and bread its chewy, soft texture.

Is gluten bad for you?

No, gluten isn’t unhealthy or dangerous for anyone except those with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition triggered by gluten, or those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

Who should avoid gluten?

People diagnosed with celiac disease must avoid gluten because it triggers the immune system to damage their small intestine. Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) should also avoid gluten to alleviate symptoms. Those with IBS or on a low FODMAP diet may also experience relief from symptoms when they give up gluten.

Think you may have celiac disease?

Symptoms Checklist