What is gluten?

  1. What is gluten?

Gluten is the generic term used for the storage protein in grains. The specific protein found in wheat, rye, and barely is the toxic substance that causes an immune response in individuals with celiac disease.

Gluten is the major storage protein of wheat, rye, barley. It is this protein fraction that creates the elasticity and stickiness that provides the characteristic texture and tenderness of gluten based breads and baked products. Gluten has a unique structure that allows the flour from these grains to absorb moisture, act as an emulsifier, stabilizer, and many other chemical properties.

Gluten consists of two fractions; prolamins, which are soluble in alcohol, and glutelins, which are insoluble in alcohol. Every grain has its own specific prolamins ans glutelins. The fractions of wheat are gliadins and glutenins (see chart for rye and barley fractions). Prolamins are difficult to digest. It is the high proline and glutamine content in gluten that prevents the proteins from being completely broken down by digestive enzymes. Individuals with celiac disease have a toxic reaction to this undigested gluten fragment.

Only prolamins are toxic to persons with celiac disease:

  • Wheat (gliadin)

  • Barley (hordein)

  • Rye (secalin)

  • Oats (avenin)

  • Botanically related species, e.g. as spelt, green spelt, kamut, emmer and einkorn

Gluten-free diet as treatment

A strict life long gluten-free diet is currently the only treatment for individuals with celiac disease. While lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet may seem daunting at first, the diet is really a prescription for health and healing in celiac disease. This strict avoidance of gluten containing foods and any cross contamination allows the intestine to heal and prevents further damage. To maintain a healthy intake and promote healing careful label reading, a balance of naturally gluten free foods and safe manufactured foods, and diet instruction with a specialist dietitian is encouraged.