What is gluten?

So, really, what is this product that makes headlines and attracts attention to your dinner table?  The word is spoken by farmers, bakers, doctors and moms, but what is it?

Gluten is a specific protein that originates in the grain of sprouted wheat, barley, and rye, as well as other related grain species.  There are three distinct parts that comprise a kernel of grain: bran, germ, and endosperm.  It is in the endosperm area that the proteins, gliaden and glutenin, which are conjoined with starch, reside.  The endosperm makes up over 80% of the weight of the kernel and contains the highest share of protein, carbohydrates and iron, as well as B-vitamins and fiber.  Gluten is formed when the glutenin & gliaden proteins in the flour combine with water.  The water purifies the protein by washing away the starch.

Gluten, therefore, provides a nutritional source of protein, both as prepared directly from the source or as an additive to foods with low-protein content.  Gluten gives elasticity to dough, and when combined with yeast produces carbon dioxide which helps the dough to rise and to keep its shape, and often gives the final product a dense texture.  It also provides structure to baked products.  The amount of kneading and preparation of the flour and dough develops the gluten structure and dictates the product’s end result.  For example, chewier products like pizza dough and bagels are refined more than that of pastry products.  Therefore, bread flours tend to be higher in gluten, than flour used for a pie crust. 

Gluten is also used in other foods and products as a stabilizing and binding agent.

Does wheat grass contain gluten?

Wheat grass is the young grass of the wheat plant, prior to sprouting.  Raw wheat grass is entirely gluten-free.    Wheat grass is often blended, pressed or dried and considered to be highly nutritional, similar to other green, leafy vegetables.

Could I be allergic to gluten?

In a simple answer, yes. Some people are allergic to gluten, just like some are allergic to peanuts or milk. For those with celiac disease (CD) or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), the gluten-free diet is a medical requirement.

Celiac disease and NCGS have many symptoms in common.  There are more than two hundred symptoms which often cause a delay in diagnosis for those with CD.  Delay in diagnosis puts those with CD at risk for other autoimmune disorders.  Some of the include:  abdominal cramping, anemia, infertility, joint pain, unexplained nutrient deficiencies, diarrhea, constipation and inability to concentrate.

It is estimated that about 1 percent of the American population suffers from CD, and another 6 percent suffer from NCGS. If you think you may suffer from either CD or NCGS, contact your physician.

Are there risks to removing gluten from my diet?

Again, the simple answer is, yes. Shelly Asplin, MA, RD, LMNT suggests that you consult a dietician and nutritionist before removing gluten from your diet. A nutrient assessment by a registered dietitian is important to make sure that adequate macronutrients and micronutrients are being consumed when following a gluten-free diet.  Nutritional consequences secondary to decreased grain consumption include a decreased intake of fiber, iron, folate, niacin, B-12, (due to the lack of fortification of most gluten-free breakfast cereals) and zinc.  Additional potential consequences of the gluten-free diet include increased fat intake due to decreased intake of gluten-free grains and an increased consumption of foods high in fat that are frequently substituted for grain foods.  Working with a dietitian skilled in managing potential nutrient deficiencies related to the gluten-free diet is paramount to success.

Sources: Wikipedia, WebMD.com, Wheat Foods Council (wheatfoods.org), Whole Grains Council (wholegrainscouncil.org) & LIVESTRONG.COM, Shelly Asplin, MA, RD, LMNT,