WTF is gluten?

Last weekend I strolled around a farmer’s market, snacking some samples vendors would offer. I took some sugar coated almonds from this one lady…smiling when I saw a sign at her booth saying “gluten free candied nuts”. Hmmm, interesting. Since when do almonds contain gluten? Gluten-free is a trend nowadays, no doubt. If you are hip and trendy you go gluten-free. Ask someone on the street what gluten is, why it is bad for you or why someone follows a gluten-free diet you will get hilarious answers. Watch this video and you know what I mean.

To come to the point. Gluten is a protein in grains such as wheat, rye, spelt, barley and kamut. There are two compounds in this protein called gliadin and glutenin. (1) The white core part in grains (endosperm) contains gluten (see picture). When you mix flour with water, gluten is responsible for the stickiness of the dough. Baked goods that use regular flour rise very nicely because gluten forms this glue-like network that forms airy pockets together with yeast or baking soda, thus making it spongy. Maybe you have noticed that gluten free bread or cakes have a very dense consistency and are not as fluffy and spongy as normal baked stuff since the elasticity is not given.

Fig.1. Structure of wheat kernel. (4)   

Fig.1. Structure of wheat kernel. (4)  

Gluten is a very controversial topic nowadays. The most serious health condition caused by gluten is the autoimmune disorder celiac disease. It affects about 0,5-1% of the world’s population. (2) When gluten is consumed by individuals that suffer from celiac disease, their immune system “attacks” gluten in the digestive system which causes serious health problems due to damages and atrophy of the gut wall. This results in malabsorption of essential nutrients and increases the risk of many other diseases. (3)(4)

Some people test negative for celiac disease, however, experience celiac disease like symptoms. This condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, erythema, anemia, bloating, depression, brain fog, tiredness are only a few of the many symptoms that can occur. (5) 

There is no doubt that people suffering from celiac disease or NCGS must not eat gluten-containing foods. Depending on the severity and stage of celiac disease. Irritated Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and wheat allergies also cause similar symptoms. Some of them might benefit from cutting out gluten from their diet, some not. (6)(7)(8) Confirmation by blood tests is recommended. 

Taken into consideration that wheat is in most processed foods (even in soy sauce, mustard, vinegars, seasonings and spice mixes) it is much more complicated than to just cut out bread and pasta.  The new allergen regulation of the European union and their labeling in restaurants facilitate an easier eating-out for gluten intolerant people.

Corn, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, arrowroot, amaranth, tapioca or millet are gluten free alternatives. Oats are naturally gluten free but due to contamination sometimes show traces of gluten.

Our market is flooded with gluten free processed foods, such as pizza, cookies, cakes, breads, rolls etc. These products tend to contain high amounts of sugar and fats low in nutrients. The reputation of gluten free products to be healthier is thus wrong. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.

 A positive outcome of the gluten-free trend is for sure that it makes people read food labels, think about their choices and maybe it might even make them more health conscious.   

For most people it is unnecessary to avoid gluten, unless someone suffers from a health condition. I do believe that there is a very powerful placebo effect when healthy people avoid gluten in order to feel better. There is no harm in avoiding gluten, try it if you want to make your life harder without reason. Just keep in mind that having digestive problems can be caused but much more things than just gluten, e.g. stress, lack of sleep, not enough fiber in your diet, lactose intolerance, sweeteners and many more. 


- JZ 



1.        Wieser H. Chemistry of gluten proteins. Food Microbiol [Internet]. 2007 Apr;24(2):115–9. Available from:

2.        Gujral N, Freeman HJ, Thomson ABR. Celiac disease: Prevalence, diagnosis, pathogenesis and treatment. World J Gastroenterol. 2012;18(42):6036–59.

3.        Nadhem ON, Azeez G, Smalligan RD, Urban S. Review and practice guidelines for celiac disease in 2014. Postgrad Med. England; 2015 Apr;127(3):259–65.

4.        Caballero B, Trugo L, Finglas P. Encyclopedia of food sciences and nutrition: Volumes 1-10. Encycl food Sci Nutr Vol 1-10. 2003;p 2539.

5.        Czaja-Bulsa G. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity - A new disease with gluten intolerance. Clin Nutr. 2015;34(2):189–94.

6.        Vazquez-Roque MI, Camilleri M, Smyrk T, Murray JA, Marietta E, O’Neill J, et al. A controlled trial of gluten-free diet in patients with irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhea: effects on bowel frequency and intestinal function. Gastroenterology. United States; 2013 May;144(5):903–911.e3.

7.        Aziz I, Trott N, Briggs R, North JR, Hadjivassiliou M, Sanders DS. Efficacy of a Gluten-Free Diet in Subjects With Irritable Bowel Syndrome-Diarrhea Unaware of Their HLA-DQ2/8 Genotype. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. United States; 2016 May;14(5):696–703.e1.

8.        Makharia A, Catassi C, Makharia GK. The Overlap between Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: A Clinical Dilemma. Nutrients. Switzerland; 2015 Dec;7(12):10417–26.