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What’s the Deal with Gluten?

It is easy to see, walking down the grocery aisles of your local supermarket, that gluten is the latest target of marketing gimmicks in the food industry.  Sticking a ‘Gluten Free’ label on products from fruits and vegetables to steak or chicken breasts — foods that naturally do not contain gluten  — leads consumers to believe those products are somehow safer, healthier, or more nutritious.

Humans have been eating wheat around the world for more than 8,000 years.  Wheat-based foods make up one-fifth of all calories eaten worldwide and is the primary source of protein in developing countries.  So how did gluten become a villain?  It’s hard to say exactly, but sometime during the mid-2000s, certain celebrity doctors started blaming gluten for indigestion, skin rashes, gas and bloating, joint pain, headaches, and a laundry list of other fairly common symptoms.  Celebrities, athletes, and social influencers jumped on board and turned going gluten-free into the next big diet trend.

So what is the deal with gluten, really?  Here we take a look at the facts and fiction of one of the world’s favorite proteins.

What is gluten, exactly?

Gluten is a protein found naturally only in wheat, barley, rye, and titricale.  Its name comes from the latin word for “sticky”, which is appropriate because gluten’s job is to act as a binding agent in the matrix of dough.  Gluten traps carbon dioxide produced by yeast or acidic reactions, causing the dough to rise and giving bread that chewy texture.

Can technology remove gluten from the wheat?

No.  Gluten is embedded within the endosperm of the grain, making it impossible to extract from the kernel.

Why are there so many gluten-free labels?

You would probably be surprised at how often gluten is added to foods that are not grain-based products.  Because gluten is a binding agent, its availability and inexpensive cost makes it a common filler.  Gluten can often be found where you least expect it — processed meats, sauces, spices, frozen potato products, pharmaceuticals, and even beauty supplies.  A common marketing strategy is to put a gluten-free label on foods that never contained and never would contain gluten in the first place, simply to raise the price or drive up sales.  According to Allied Market Research, the gluten free market was valued at $4.3 billion in 2019, and is estimated to reach $7.5 billion by 2027.

Gluten seems harmless.  Why is it such a big deal?

It is estimated that one in five adults now avoid or completely eliminate gluten from their diets.  Going gluten-free is even more prevalent among millennials, who tend to get their information from friends, family, and social influencers.  Unfortunately, only about one in twenty of those who avoid gluten actually have a medical reason to limit or eliminate the protein from their diet.  But for the 7 percent of the population with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, avoiding gluten is medically necessary.

Is there an actual medical reason to limit or eliminate gluten from a diet?

For some, yes.  Approximately one percent of the world’s population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, making total elimination of gluten from the diet essential.  An additional six percent of the population has been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, which also requires eliminating gluten.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to gluten.  Unlike a food allergy, in which the body attacks the allergen culprit directly, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder.  When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body’s immune system turns on itself and attacks the body, sending the gastrointestinal system into distress and damaging the digestive tract.  Damage to the surface of the small intestine prevents proper absorption of nutrients, leading to a host of symptoms including malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies, nerve damage, and even cancers.  

Certainly a bit of gluten won’t hurt?

Even small amounts — 50 milligrams, for example — of gluten is enough to cause immune reactions in people with celiac disease.  That’s about the size of one small crouton or the breadcrumbs in one meatball.

Is there a medication to fix it?

No.  The only treatment for celiac disease is total avoidance of gluten.  The symptoms of an immune response to gluten ingestion can last days or even a week, and the damage to the lining of the small intestine can be permanent.  But celiac disease and gluten sensitivities are the only reason to completely eliminate gluten from your diet.

Humans have been eating wheat for a long time.  Why is celiac disease suddenly a thing?

Less than twenty years ago, diagnosing celiac disease was a time-consuming process of elimination.  Today celiac disease can be identified with a simple blood test and a biopsy of the intestine.  Advancements in medical testing and awareness of the disease has led to increases in the number of diagnoses every year.

People without celiac disease say a gluten-free diet is healthier.  Is that true?

No. First of all, one kernel of whole wheat packs a powerful punch of protein, fiber, vitamin B, iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium — all essential vitamins and minerals — that contribute mightily to reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, birth defects, and some forms of cancer.  Eliminating gluten from your diet without a medical reason reduces these essential vitamins and minerals, which cannot be absorbed as effectively when substituted with a supplement.

Secondly, many grain products marketed as gluten-free are actually less healthy than their gluten-containing counterparts.  To compensate for the lack of gluten in these products, manufacturers have to add in other ingredients.  Sugar, saturated fat, salt, and other additives or alternative gluten-free flours, which contain more heavily processed carbohydrates, are used to mimic the flavor and texture of traditional products.

Some who cut out gluten do lose weight initially because they swap out processed and packaged snacks for fresh fruits or vegetables, but in the long run going gluten-free can actually increase the risk of heart disease, weight gain, and other medical issues.

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