Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains such as barley, rye and oats. It is used as a food additive, labeled as hydrolyzed vegetable protein or modified food starch.
Recently my 12 year-old son has been baking bread. He pounds the dough as if he is urgently resuscitating someone. I am told that kneading (or whacking) the dough “brings out the gluten”. There is something about the aroma of fresh-baked bread that feels homey and stimulates our appetite. Yummy dinner rolls, warm bread with honey, banana muffins…it’s the gluten that our wheat-eating society loves so much. But gluten isn’t always welcome on the dinner table. Gluten-containing foods can cause a number of health problems.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains such as barley, rye and oats. It is used as a food additive, labeled as hydrolyzed vegetable protein or modified food starch. Gluten imparts a chewy quality to cooked foods, and pure gluten is often used as a baking ingredient or as a vegetarian protein in patties and other foods.
Broken strands of protein
One type of problem with gluten arises from incompletely digested protein. Proteins are chains of amino acids, appearing like strands of pearls folded into 3 dimensional shapes. When we eat a protein, digestive enzymes break this strand into sections containing several amino acids, then smaller pieces of 2 or 3 (called peptides), then finally individual amino acids. The goal of digestion is to produce a pool of single amino acids that can be reassembled into new structures needed by the body. When some digestive enzymes (known as DPP-IV) are deficient or not functioning properly, protein strands remain in broken “pieces” called peptides (gliadorphin). These peptides are similar in structure to opiates, making them habit forming, causing a person to crave wheat. They also resemble brain peptides, causing many people to experience foggy thinking or depression for days after eating wheat.
Wheat allergy occurs when immune cells identify the wheat protein as a threat, and launch a defense that includes the formation of antibodies designed to attack a specific part of the wheat protein – including gluten, gliadin or other parts of the “chain”. Some allergy reactions are immediate, causing hives, cramps, respiratory distress or burning of the throat. Delayed reactions , with symptoms appearing hours to days after eating the food, making it difficult to track. Sometimes called sensitivity, delayed reactions can range from mood changes to digestive problems, joint pain, rashes or headache.
Celiac Disease, also called gluten intolerance, is a hereditary disorder of the immune system. Immune cells react, causing inflammation and releasing destructive enzymes intended to destroy the gliadin, a part of the gluten protein. This leads to progressive damage of the villi and microvilli that line the small intestine, leading to poor nutrient absorption. Celiac disease can cause, poor growth, abdominal bloating, cramping, a type of blistering rash, and other distressing symptoms. Often it is mistaken for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
From symptoms to relief
If you suspect a problem with gluten, an elimination diet involving strict avoidance of all gluten sources, may provide useful information. Some people find that after a few weeks to a few months of total avoidance, they are improving. Testing for allergies can also provide useful information. Many people respond well to enzyme supplements along with dietary changes. Diagnosis of celiac disease involves specific test that you can request from your health practitioner. Gluten is often at the root of depression, attention or behavior problems, or with the autism spectrum.
What to eat
Many websites have lists of “safe” foods for a gluten-free diet. Some vigilance is needed when purchasing prepared items. Sprouted grains may be tolerated by someone with a mild sensitivity to gluten, but should be avoided by those with severe reactions or Celiac Disease. Delicious breads can be made using rice flour, and flatbreads made using chickpea flour. Rice noodles and bean threads make a great base for spicy sauces. Our long-awaited summer will provide an abundance of fruit for smoothies. Fortunately, if you want to avoid gluten there are loads of delicious foods to fill your plate!
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