What is gluten — and why are we so sensitive to it?
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
One question my patients often ask is, Why are we suddenly seeing and hearing so
much about gluten? It’s true. “Gluten-free” is a selling
point on many of the foods we see at the grocery store. Gluten sensitivity is also
a popular topic in health magazines, in journals, and on-line. To answer our questions,
it helps to understand where gluten comes from.
Gluten is the substance that gives dough its elasticity and makes pasta and bread
chewy. Along with starch, gluten resides in the endosperm of seeds in the grass
family (grains), where their purpose is to nourish the growing seedling as it sprouts.
Unlike starch, which is pure carbohydrate, gluten is made up of glycoproteins
— that is, sugars combined with proteins — mainly gliadins
and glutenins, which come in a range of shapes and sizes themselves.
Because of their unique glycoprotein content, some grains are more problematic than
others. Different grain species, subspecies, and varieties contain varying proportions
of glutenins and gliadins, with members of the wheat tribe containing the most.
It’s thought that the gliadins are mostly responsible for triggering the immune
response associated with gluten intolerance and its more serious form, celiac disease,
while the glutenins aid and abet the process by amplifying inflammation.
Grains and gluten and members of the wheat tribe
Gluten proteins occur naturally in many grass species, but especially those of the
wheat “tribe.” This includes wheat species in all their various forms
— durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, triticale, einkorn, emmer, graham, malt,
couscous, seitan, bulgur, and faro — plus wheat’s first cousins, rye
Oats are a second cousin to wheat, and they may also contain gluten proteins, but
generally in much lower amounts and more often as a result of cross-contamination
in growing, storage or processing.
More distant cousins to wheat are rice, corn, millet and sorghum,
whose kernels contain disease-activating proteins in varying, generally small amounts
in their natural state. They too can become contaminated, however, both pre or post
Buckwheat and quinoa are not true grasses but amaranths, like
rhubarb, and are naturally gluten-free. As long as they’re grown in fields
that aren’t rotated with true grains and processed in dedicated facilities,
they can be safely included in a gluten-free diet.
But the molecular underpinnings of gluten-related disorders are complex, interrelated,
and confounding. We don’t fully understand why so many people are sensitive
to gluten these days, but there are many different theories. A hundred years ago,
the crops in our fields were not only more richly varied, but foods were grown and
stored in smaller quantities. Within a span of mere decades Americans have come
to consume a fifth of their calories in the form of bleached, refined wheat flour
derived from just two species! Meanwhile, we’ve become more of a melting pot
than ever, so it stands to reason our wheat-heavy diet might offend our genetic
ancestry. It could be that because we’re no longer consuming the same grains
and varieties our ancestors did, our bodies register those we do consume as “foreign.”
Another possible source of our sensitivity is that we’re now cultivating so
few varieties of wheat in huge tracts, spraying it with pesticides, and storing
it in enormous silos that could be harboring molds and other toxins. Could it also
be that we are reacting to genetically-modified wheat?
Sadly, we don’t have clear answers yet. Agronomists are looking for the “least
toxic” cereals, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack to come
up with varieties that possess all the delightful baking qualities of glutenins
and gliadins without their harmful effects! Meanwhile, gluten is becoming more and
more of an issue in our modern society, and it affects much more of the body than
you may think. We often recommend that women try a gluten-free diet if they have
stubborn symptoms, even when there’s no obvious connection between what they
eat and how they feel — and many women are surprised to find they feel better
fairly quickly! Find out more about gluten sensitivity in our article on
celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
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References & further reading
Last Modified Date: 04/20/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP