Clarified - what is this gluten of which you speak?
October 6th, 2010
07:00 AM ET
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In cooking, the process of clarification entails straining out extraneous muck from liquids so that they might be pure, clear and ideal for consumption. With this series on food terminology we're attempting to do the same.

The word “gluten” is being bandied about quite a bit lately on our site and in the news.

We mentioned gluten heavily in our explainer on high fructose corn syrup; commenters kvetched about restaurants’ insensitivity to issues surrounding it in a recent lunchtime poll; Gwyneth Paltrow publicly nixed it from her diet; and there are slews of cookbooks and product lines that come out every day to cater to those living a "gluten-free" lifestyle.

Such attention doesn't go without merit. A recent study indicates that one out of 133 people in the United States is affected by Celiac disease or gluten intolerance – and that number continues to grow steadily.

Chatter about gluten is clearly on the rise - so what exactly is it?

Gluten refers to the group of natural proteins found in all forms of wheat and wheat flour – whether it be bulgur, durum, semolina, spelt, rye, barley or the hybrid crop, triticale.

Meet blogger and cookbook author Gluten Free Girl

These natural proteins, gliadin and glutenin, are non-water-soluble and they’re the ones that essentially achieve leavening. The molecules trap carbon dioxide gas in the dough, so all those tiny holes, sponge or “bubbles” you see in that loaf – yup, that’s the gluten. It's used in bread baking because the elasticity of its protein structure gives cohesiveness and structure to dough.

Unfortunately, it also brings gastric misery to people with gluten intolerance - also called Celiac disease, Coeliac, Coeliac Sprue Disease and gluten enteropathy - which is a far cry from a run-of-the-mill wheat allergy.

A wheat allergy is like any standard allergy. Depending on its severity, reactions can be similar to what a sufferer might have to animal dander or shellfish - hives or nausea.

Celiac disease on the contrary, is an autoimmune disorder with intense gastrointestinal symptoms - like cramping and bloating - among others. When people with Celiac disease eat foods with gluten, it damages the villi of the small intestine wall - thus, preventing basic nutrients of food from being absorbed.

Simply avoiding bread doesn't do much good. Gluten pops up in surprising places, including soy sauce, sausage, lunchmeat, some instant coffee, soups, sauces and even Communion wafers. Sufferers often need to go to extreme measure to avoid encountering it - hence the uptick in gluten-free products, cookbooks and restaurants.

If Celiac disease is left untreated - that is to say, if gluten is still consumed - it can go so far as to cause anemia, gall bladder failure or osteoporosis.

While much has become known about this disease in recent years, much remains a mystery - including the cause.

Previously - What is high fructose corn syrup?

soundoff (361 Responses)
  1. Deloras

    There should be a store where you could order clothing depending on just how many months of age your toddler is, we are often purchasing clothing for good friends children, our nieces and our nephews and I usually seem to get the
    wrong size

    October 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  2. Gwendolyn

    Hi there, just wanted to say, I liked this blog post.

    It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

    July 2, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  3. steehange

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    December 25, 2010 at 1:38 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫


      July 2, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  4. AllieCeliac

    Hey Everyone,

    Just cause people who aren't celiac don't get it, doesn't mean that we, the celiac community, should call them names. Think about it from their perspective... Celiac sounds outlandish if you don't know anyone with it. Since it's a genetic defect carried in primarily Caucasians, there are going to be a lot of people who don't get it. Lots of people didn't get SIckle Cell or Tay Sachs or Cystic Fibrosis for a long time. We do now, but we didn't always. We're just getting to the point where we understand Celiac disease and it's finally being diagnosed in the correct numbers. Celiac is also a spectrum disease where some people (like me) got the light end and it's quite manageable. Other get the "death by celiac" who could die of starvation from it.

    We need to reach out to people who don't understand and explain, it's the only way to make our lives better, and potentially theirs. Because pretty soon most restaurants will see that catering to 1% of the population is worth it, because 1% of the US population is over 3 million people, which is approximately the same as the entire country of Panama. At each of those 1% have family and friends who need to have mother's day lunches, and birthdays, and anniversaries. And that group added up, makes a lot of people who need gluten free options.

    Let's just keep hoping that someday they find a treatment option that easier to stomach... :)

    October 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
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