The effect gluten has on the body depends on how your body responds to gluten. For people who have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, the effects can cause an array of unpleasant or even debilitating symptoms. For everyone else, gluten plays an important role in a healthy diet.
Gluten does not have a negative effect on most people. It does cause an inflammatory response in people with gluten sensitivity, however, sometimes with serious consequences.
Chemistry of Gluten
Although it comes from the starch-laden endosperm of some types of grains, gluten is actually a protein. It is activated when flour is mixed with water, and it's an essential component to any dough or batter. Gluten binds to starch molecules and provides structure and elasticity to dough. Without it, baked goods and pastas would fall apart.
Obvious Sources of Gluten
Wheat grains and flour are probably the most recognizable sources of gluten. Most breads, pastas, and pastries are made from wheat flour. All varieties of wheat contain gluten, including durum, semolina and triticale. Rye and barley grains and flour also contain gluten.
Hidden Sources of Gluten
Oats are gluten free in their pure form; however, most oats pick up trace amounts of gluten when they are processed in a facility that also processes wheat products. Other not-so-obvious sources of gluten include soy sauce and two ingredients found in many processed foods: monosodium glutamate and modified food starch.
Beer and other grain-based beverages contain gluten, although some beers may be gluten free. Licorice-type chewy candies and batter-dipped or breaded fried foods are often made with wheat flour. Some medications use wheat starch as a filler ingredient.
Read more: 15 Unexpected Foods that Contain Gluten
Gluten in the Body
About 4 percent of the population in the U.S. has a wheat allergy or a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. For these people, eating gluten causes an inflammatory response which may result in short-term digestive distress. It is also possible for them to develop serious conditions, such as damage to the intestines, or a medical emergency, such as anaphylaxis.
Celiac Disease: Gluten Intolerance
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that presents in approximately one percent of the population. Antibodies in the gut respond to the presence of gluten, causing the cells to attack the lining of the intestine. The damaged intestines may not properly absorb many nutrients such as iron and calcium, which can lead to long-term complications like osteoporosis and anemia.
When people with celiac disease consume gluten, they may experience the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Weight loss
People with celiac disease may test positive for antibodies if they have gluten in their system. If they have been eating a gluten-free diet, they will need a biopsy to positively diagnose their condition. There is no cure for celiac disease, but it can be managed by following a strictly gluten-free diet.
Sometimes, gluten intolerance due to celiac disease can cause an itchy, blistering rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. The rash can be painful and may appear on the face, elbows, knees or shoulders. However, gluten can cause this rash in some people who do not have any of the other symptoms of celiac disease.
Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity
Some people experience many of the symptoms of celiac disease but do not have the immune response to gluten that characterizes an autoimmune disorder. Gluten-sensitive people experience relief and resolution of symptoms by avoiding all gluten.
There is no test to determine nonceliac gluten sensitivity. However, doctors can diagnose this condition based on symptoms, negative antibody and biopsy tests and the effects of eliminating gluten from the diet.
Allergies to Wheat
Like other types of food allergies, a wheat allergy causes an immune response that triggers an allergic reaction. Ingesting wheat products does not cause abdominal distress but instead causes allergy symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, swelling, hives or — in severe cases — anaphylactic shock.
A wheat allergy is diagnosed by a skin prick test or observing symptoms after eating wheat. It is more common in children than adults and often diminishes or disappears with maturity. Patients often take antihistamines to manage symptoms or simply avoid eating wheat products.
Benefits of Gluten
For the other 96 percent of Americans who do not have an intolerance, allergy or a sensitivity to wheat products, gluten does not generally cause any negative effects in the body. Wheat products provide fiber and nutrients such as protein and iron. Seitan, a cooked wheat gluten product, is a nutritious, meat-free source of protein and iron.
Gluten may also contribute to overall gut health, because it is a prebiotic. Prebiotics provide food for the beneficial bacteria that live in the digestive tract. Maintaining healthy gut flora can help to prevent inflammation and possibly colon cancer.
Should You Choose Gluten Free?
Gluten-free diets have become popular in the U.S., thanks to celebrities and athletes touting the benefits of giving up wheat. However, there is a distinct lack of evidence that gluten-free diets have a measurable effect on people who do not need to avoid gluten for medical reasons.
Gluten-free diets are perceived to promote wellness, weight loss and improved athletic performance. However, the results of studies on the effects of gluten on performance suggests there was no difference between a gluten-free diet and a diet that allowed gluten.
Giving Up Gluten
Whether you have issues with gluten or just want to find out if you do, adopting a gluten-free diet can help you avoid foods that trigger symptoms and determine if you feel better when you don't eat wheat. Maximize the benefits of this diet by eating plenty of gluten-free, whole grains such as rice, quinoa, millet and corn. Build into your diet naturally gluten-free foods such as legumes, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts and meats, rather than prepared gluten-free foods.
Avoid Some Gluten-Free Products
Many processed foods that are gluten free are not as healthy as their gluten-containing equivalents. Products such as gluten-free bread, pastas and cereals are often lower in fiber, vitamins and minerals and higher in sugar than original products. Many of these gluten-free products are not enriched like their gluten counterparts and contain lower amounts of B vitamins such as folate, thiamin and riboflavin.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Gluten: A Benefit or Harm to the Body?
- Stanford University Medicine: Wheat Hypersensitivities
- Gastroenterology and Hepatology: Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of Gluten-Free Diet in Non-Celiac Disease Patients
- Arizona State University: ASU Experts Put Gluten-Free Diet Under the Microscope
- Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: Celiac Center: Introduction to Celiac Disease