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What’s the big deal about gluten?

What’s the big deal about gluten?

Amy Salant

Are you curious about the gluten-free movement that has captured the nation? An amazing 30% of the American public has or is trying to cut back on gluten intake, so obviously this is a popular nutrition topic. If you are considering going gluten-free, here are a few facts that can help you decide if this dietary strategy is for you.


1.   What is gluten?

Gluten is a plant protein found in wheat. Only wheat (and related grain

species such as barley and rye) contains the protein gluten. Gluten is

actually a “composite protein,” or a combo of two proteins that remain

after all the starch is washed away from wheat flour. Gluten contains

two main groups of protein, called the gliadins and the glutenins.

During digestion in the small intestine, these large strands of protein are

broken down into smaller amino acid chains called polypeptides, which

are then absorbed into the small intestine.


  1. When is gluten a problem?

Only about 1% of the US population has celiac disease (an abnormal

immune reaction to partially digested gliadin). When people with celiac

disease eat gluten, it triggers an harmful immune system reaction in the

small intestine that has serious medical consequences.

Gluten sensitivity (gluten intolerance) differs from celiac disease and

is actually a spectrum of disorders which include celiac disease and

wheat allergy. (A person can be gluten intolerant and not have celiac

disease or a wheat allergy.) In the case of gluten intolerance, when one

consumes gluten, the symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal

cramping, bloating, headaches, and fatigue.


  1. When should you definitely go gluten-free?

If you have received a definitive diagnosis from your physician that you

have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity then by all means avoid wheat

products. However, for the large majority of Americans, gluten is a

perfectly digested protein in the human digestive tract with zero

deleterious side effects. In fact, wheat is a cereal grain (a type of grass)

that has been cultivated as a source of nutrition for humankind as far

back as 9600 BC, hence wheat is truly the “staff of life.” Whole wheat

(in its natural form) is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fiber,

carbohydrate, protein and healthy oil. Globally, wheat is the leading

source of vegetable protein in human food, having a higher protein

content than either maize (corn) or rice, the other major cereals.


If you are a healthy and active person with no history of gluten sensitivity then

do not shy away from eating whole wheat products.  People who eat whole wheat

breads and cereals have a reduced risk of chronic disease, especially heart

disease—the leading cause of death in American men and women.