What is Wheat Gluten?
Wheat gluten is what gives dough its elasticity, allowing it to be turned into chewy bagels and your favorite pizza crust. Gluten can be found in other foods, such as rye and barley, but it is wheat gluten that has drawn the most attention, probably because wheat is a nearly ubiquitous in the western diet.
What Foods Contain Wheat Gluten?
To find a few common foods containing wheat, simply open the pantry and start reading labels – couscous, breakfast cereal, bread, English muffins, snack foods, pizza, pasta, flour tortillas, beer, as well as vegetarian foods such as seitan and TVP (texturized vegetable protein) all contain wheat gluten.
Humans started cultivating wheat about 10,000 years ago, which sounds like a long time, but from an evolutionary standpoint makes it still a relatively new phenomenon within the human body, which might explain why some people react adversely to wheat products. But today wheat can be nearly impossible to escape – these days even products like ice cream and ketchup contain wheat.
Who Should Avoid Wheat Gluten?
Although the western medical mainstream is still quite reluctant to name wheat gluten as a problem (see the 2007 New York Times article referenced below), plenty of anecdotal evidence points to definite health benefits from avoiding wheat products. People living a wheat-free diet note many benefits, from less trouble with arthritis to not feeling as sluggish in the late afternoon. In this sense, it seems that nearly everyone can benefit from reducing the amount of wheat gluten they ingest.
In particular, wheat gluten is a definite enemy of people with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder in which the small intestine cannot digest the wheat proteins that make up gluten. Celiac disease is characterized by chronic diarrhea and fatigue. In children, celiac disease can also be associated with psychological problems and a failure to thrive, and in adults, celiac disease can also present itself as anemia and weight loss.
What’s more, according to the Mayo Clinic, wheat allergies are one of the eight most common food allergies, especially amongst children. But even without a wheat or wheat gluten allergy, gluten can be hard to digest. Foods that contain processed or refined wheat (most grocery store breads, for example), tend to cause a blood sugar spike and then crash, leading to that familiar feeling of drowsiness or fuzziness after a big meal. Sometimes this spike-and-crash cycle caused by processed wheat also leads to nausea. Once the gluten moves out of the stomach and into the intestines, it becomes responsible for gas and uncomfortable constipation.
Going Gluten Free
As knowledge spreads about the ill effects associated with wheat gluten and more people experiment with wheat free or gluten free diets, gluten free recipes and products are starting to spring up. Information about gluten and wheat free foods can be found online at sites such as Wheat-Free.org and WheatFreeFood.com.
Living gluten and wheat free is not as hard as it may seem at first; mostly, it requires an increased awareness of the ingredients listed on food labels and common sense. While some people suffer from actual wheat allergies (meaning that they react to wheat with hives, congestion, and digestive issues), an increasing number of health-conscious people are realizing that they are wheat intolerant or at least wheat sensitive. At the very least, cutting back on processed foods and foods that contain refined wheat are sure to improve health and overall well-being.
Murphy, Kate. “Jury is Still Out on Gluten, the Latest Dietary Villain.” New York Times: May 8, 2007.
“Wheat Allergy.” Mayo Clinic.