What You Should Know About Gluten
At one time, gluten was an unfamiliar term. With greater awareness about celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance, this food ingredient is now a household word. Today, thousands of products on grocery store shelves are labelled as “gluten-free”. However, there’s still a lot of confusion about what gluten is and where it is found.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the term used for the protein compounds in wheat and many other grains that help protect the plants’ seeds prior to germination. In wheat, gluten is a combination of proteins called gliadins and glutenins. In barley, the gluten proteins are called hordeins, and in rye, avenins. Other grains such as oats contain their own types of gluten, but these are less often associated with adverse reactions.
The size and complex structure of gluten proteins can make them difficult for some people to digest. In individuals with a genetic predisposition for an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, gluten can trigger an abnormal immune response that makes the body attack its own tissues.
Why Is Gluten in So Many Foods?
When gluten is processed during food preparation (such as kneading bread dough), it becomes highly elastic. This is the component in flour that gives bread its springy texture and that keeps it from collapsing during cooking. Because of its resiliency and other properties, gluten has been found to be very useful as a food additive. It can:
- Improve food texture
- Increase the protein content of foods
- Add or enhance flavor
- Stabilize products for a longer shelf life
Common Sources of Gluten
The most common sources of gluten in the American diet are breads, other baked goods, crackers, breakfast foods (pancakes, waffles, biscuits, etc.), cereals, noodles, and pasta. Additional foods that commonly contain gluten are soups, salad dressings, sauces, processed lunchmeat, meat substitutes, seasoning blends, sauces, and gravies.
Foods That Always Contain Gluten
Any food with wheat, barley, rye, or tricale (a new form of wheat-like grain) on the label contains gluten. Foods that use derivatives of these grains such as malt or brewer’s yeast contain gluten as well. Alcoholic beverages such as beer and ale contain gluten unless labelled as gluten-free.
Foods That May Contain Gluten
Because of current food labeling laws, gluten is often difficult to identify in everyday food products. However, certain additives usually contain gluten unless a product is labelled as “gluten free”. These include natural and artificial flavorings, hydrolyzed plant protein, emulsifiers, thickeners, food coloring, starch, and stabilizers. People following a gluten free diet should avoid foods with these additives.
What Is Cross-Contact?
Cross-contact occurs when foods or products that contain gluten come into contact with foods that would otherwise be gluten free. For example, oats are often safe for people with celiac disease to eat—unless the oats are ground in the same machinery and shipped in the same containers as wheat (a common practice in the U.S.) In that case, there is no way to keep wheat dust from contaminating the oats. Cross-contact can also occur during cooking if surfaces and utensils are not decontaminated after preparing foods that contain gluten.