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What is Gluten?

August 12, 2010
“Gluten-free” labels are showing up on more and more items in the grocery store, and even have their own isles in some cases. Diagnoses of celiac disease and gluten-intolerance are on the rise and many people are wondering, what the heck is gluten?

Gluten is the sticky protein found in wheat. It’s what makes bread and pizza dough elastic and malleable, and helps create the fluffy, airy texture in a good cake. What is commonly referred to as “gluten” is actually a composite of two proteins found in wheat called gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the component that most people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease have a harsh immune reaction to.
Gluten is an inflammatory protein, which means that when we eat it our bodies have a natural immune response to it that causes inflammation. People with a “sensitivity” to gluten have a much stronger immune response to the protein which causes the small intestine to lose it’s ability to absorb nutrients and can cause pain, swelling, bloating, fatigue, dizziness fever and other symptoms you get when you’re sick and your body is trying to get you healthy again.

In nature, wheat needs gluten for seed-storage (until weather conditions allow a seedling to pop out, or until a critter who stowed it away in their tree hole drops it by accident) and then as food for a seeding.

There are a lot of theories about how gluten-sensitivity has come about, and everything from genetics to over-consuming corn are among them. In our bodies, gluten can be a good source of protein in theory, and has been for thousands of years. But that was before mass-consumption  of anti-inflammatory drugs, genetically modified organisms, pesticide-saturated produce, and other un-foods started to overwhelm our guts and immune systems. In the past century, un-food has penetrated every American diet on a daily, if not meal-by-meal basis. I’d say that it is impossible to have a “standard” American diet if you also want to be gluten-, chemical-, and GMO-free.

Because gluten-sensitivities and celiac disease is being diagnosed at much higher rates today than just a few years ago, more studies will surely be done. For now, keep a lookout for ingredients labels and you’ll be surprised at how often gluten is included in your food.
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