What is Gluten? Deciphering the Mystery & Meaning of Gluten

diagram of intestinal damage of ingesting gluten

What is gluten?

Let's chat about baking for a moment (I promise this ties in to the meaning of gluten). In the days before Wonder Bread, people actually used to make their own bread and gluten was a key part in the success of baking a perfect loaf. Gluten is a binder that essentially helps the ingredients "stick together". Companies use gluten in food and cosmetics for the same reason.

Gluten is the term for a protein component of wheat and similar proteins found in rye and barley. Gluten is a complex mixture of hundreds of related but distinct proteins, mainly gliadin and glutenin.

Is a gluten-free diet healthy?

Celebrities, weight loss fanatics and the media have made the gluten-free "diet" sound hip. You'll lose weight! Your skin will glow! You'll have tons of energy! People are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon in their never-ending quest for health and beauty.  Totally wrong.

gluten free diagnosis doctor clipboard

Studies have shown that the gluten-free diet does not have any health benefits and may even cause harm unless the person is diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. A study conducted by Benjamin Niland, MD and Brooks D. Cash, MD on "Health Benefits and Adverse Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet in Non–Celiac Disease Patients" suggests the adverse effects of a gluten-free diet in non–celiac disease patients include:

  • Deficiencies of micronutrients and fiber
  • Increased in fat content of foods
  • Hyperlipidemia (abnormally high concentration of fats or lipids in the blood)
  • Hyperglycemia (an excess of glucose in the bloodstream, often associated with diabetes)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Increased financial costs
  • Social impairment or restrictions

What is gluten enteropathy?

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The definition of enteropathy is "a disease of the intestinal tract". Gluten enteropathy is the medical term for celiac disease (also known as gluten sensitive enteropathy, celiac sprue or coeliac disease). 

Celiac Disease (CD) or gluten-sensitive enteropathy is a T-cell mediated disease occurring in genetically susceptible individuals induced by the ingestion of one of several proteins found in wheat (gliadins), barley (hordeins) and rye (secalinin).*

*Source: The National Center for Biotechnology Information. NCBI advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information.

Is it really gluten-free? Hidden gluten and bizarre names.

Reading labels. Deciphering ingredients. Worrying about where or how "gluten-free" food is processed. Just a typical day in the life of a gluten-free person...

The issue of cross contamination in any brand is a difficult one to nail down. Information on what is manufactured on the product lines as well as how the lines are cleaned in between product manufacturing is not always readily available.

The FDA regulates what we eat and requires the eight major food allergens to be clearly identified on the ingredients (ie Contains Wheat). Food labels must clearly identify the food source names of any ingredients that are one of the major food allergens or contain any protein derived from a major food allergen. Milk, Eggs, Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod), Crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp), Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans), Peanuts, Wheat, and Soybeans. We know that wheat is off limits, however, gluten also lurks in barley, rye and cross contaminated oats. Frustratingly, there's a whole lot of other names for gluten. I never knew Laurdimonium Hydroxypropyl was another name for wheat. I can't even pronounce the dang name.

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Hidden gluten in cosmetics.

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Gluten in makeup ingredients and gluten in skin care products is surprisingly common.

Many companies use gluten in shampoo, lipstick, eye shadows and other cosmetics as a binder that essentially helps the ingredients “stick together”. It's important to learn how to identify hidden gluten (and the skin reactions it causes) along with information on safe gluten-free cosmetic options.

Whether you have celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the bottom line is our bodies react to gluten. Our skin is the largest organ of the human body and what we apply on our skin does get absorbed into our skin.

So is gluten-free wheat-free?

One of the most important things I learned when I first went gluten-free (and I learned it the hard way), was that WHEAT-FREE DOES NOT MEAN GLUTEN-FREE. Sorry to shout, but I can't emphasize this enough. 

field of wheat with blue skies

When I was first diagnosed, I was handed a copy of foods I could and could not eat. It was outdated and included "safe" foods like ketchup and potatoes (don't even get me started).

Sadly, some of the information I really needed was missing. Like the difference between wheat-free and gluten-free. For months, I ate wheat-free cereal and crackers, thinking they were gluten-free. After reading the ingredients (for the 1,457th time) and cross-referencing my outdated guide, I realized my wheat-free cereal contained barley. Barley = gluten.

I cried into my cereal bowl before I dumped it down the sink. Then I cursed a bit for the $5.25 box of wheat-free cereal. 

So in addition to understanding the ingredients and other names for gluten (if you missed, it, check out "Is it really gluten-free? Hidden gluten and bizarre names." above). It's vital that you read every single ingredient.

Are oats gluten-free?

Oats are naturally gluten-free. However, this is where it gets tricky... due to where oats are farmed and how they are processed, cross contamination occurs, and the oats become “glutened”. This is why, unless your oats are certified gluten-free, they're off limits.

According to The Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) of North America, "While studies have found that oats are safe for the vast majority of those with celiac disease, they can be contaminated by wheat, rye or barley during farming, processing and storage. Purity Protocol is a farm-to-plate method of ensuring that oats are gluten-free and have met requirements for seed stock purity as well as criteria for harvesting, transport, storage, processing and manufacturing."

At the time of this post, per GIG's website, there are four oat processors in the U.S. and Canada that currently use the Purity Protocol claim

  1. Montana Gluten Free Processors
  2. Cream Hill Estates
  3. Gluten Free Harvest/Canyon Oats
  4. Avena Foods Limited (Canada)

Check out these companies that manufacture Purity Protocol gluten-free oats as well as companies who utilize these oats in their gluten-free products here.

Definition of the “Purity Protocol” for Producing Gluten‐Free Oats

Avena Foods hosted a webinar on how to produce food that is safe, pure, and traceable through the Purity Protocol farm to table production model. The Purity Protocol is an industry benchmark process that is based on "Start Clean Stay Clean" principles proven to produce certified gluten-free oats consistently at or below the 5ppm level. To put this in perspective, FDA and Health Canada have established a gluten threshold level at less than 20 ppm for products labeled “gluten-free”. Watch their informative video below.

Is there a universal gluten-free symbol?

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The short answer is "no".

There are a variety of icons and symbols to designate a product as gluten-free. Keep in mind, not all products use a gluten-free symbol. Some companies use the wording "gluten-free".

When in doubt, contact the manufacturer via their customer service hotline, website, or chat.

See below for two organizations that utilize gluten-free icons. The most common is the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America's Certified Gluten-Free symbol.

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gluten-intolerance-group-certified-gluten-free
gluten-intolerance-group-certified-gluten-free-food-service

Gluten Intolerance Group of North America

Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG) has been a highly respected leader in the gluten-free community since it was founded in 1974. In addition to their local branches across the United States, GIG has also increased its presence internationally to 29 countries. It is headquartered in Auburn, WA.

Visit the Gluten Intolerance Group's (GIG) website for gluten-free resources.

GIG's Certified Gluten-Free Label (Gluten-Free Certified Products)

The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), a program of GIG, is a leader in the verification of quality, integrity, and purity of gluten-free products. One of the top certification programs in the world, GFCO inspects products and manufacturing facilities for gluten, in an effort to maintain strict industry standards.

GFCO has currently certified over 30,000 products in 29 different countries. *Per GIG website at the time of this post.

GIG's Certified Gluten-Free Food Service (Certified Gluten-Free Restaurants)

The Gluten-Free Food Services (GFFS) Training and Accreditation Program, a program of GIG, is designed to work with all food service establishments who wish to provide for and serve gluten-free consumers.

GFFS works with experts in food preparation to develop, educate, and train service establishments to meet and adhere to the highest gluten-free standards.

gluten-free-certification-program
beyond celiac gluten free certification

Gluten-Free Certification Program

From the GFCP website: In 2009 the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) commissioned the development of a voluntary certification program based on a preventative, science-based approach for managing the safe production of gluten-free products – The Gluten-Free Certification Program. The GFCP was established with consensus from consumer and industry associations, retailers, manufacturers, and government agencies.

Products displaying a GFCP trademark have been manufactured in a facility which successfully undergoes a robust, non-biased, annual third party audit. This audit verifies the facility’s ability to routinely meet the stringent GFCP standard requirements for managing the production of gluten-free products. Today the Gluten-Free Certification Program provides consumers the ability to shop with confidence by selecting those safe, reliable and gluten-free products displaying a GFCP trademark.

From the Beyond Celiac website: Beyond Celiac (formerly the NFCA) is a U.S. based non-profit organization that has brought the GFCP to the U.S. This alliance makes the GFCP the first and only North American program endorsed by leading celiac disease organizations in both the U.S. and Canada.

Visit Beyond Celiac's website to learn more about their role and impact on our gluten-free community as well as the Gluten-Free Certification.

Gluten-free product labeling.

To the right are two examples of gluten-free products and how they are labeled. The location of the gluten-free wording and/or symbol varies greatly depending on the manufacturer (see red arrows).

This means that you'll be doing a lot of box flipping and ingredient reading, but your gut will thank you. 

PS - not all gluten-free products are glaringly obvious. There have been times that I've needed my bifocals to read that the product is indeed gluten-free.

aldi-livegfree-cheddar-cheese-biscuit-mix-gluten-free-box-label
pillsbury-gluten-free-funfetti-cake-box

Deciphering ingredient labels.

To the right is an example of an ingredient label with the major food allergens bolded as well as the FDA required "Contains..." statement (see red arrow). This helps immensely to quickly identify wheat

However, remember that barley, rye and contaminated oats also contain gluten. They won't be shown in bold or in the "Contains..." statement.

Ingredients can change, so always do your research.

ingredients-allergen-label-contains-wheat-milk-and-soy

Going gluten-free changed my life for the better!

hello-i-am-gluten-free-name-tag-maureen-stanley

August 2005 was the last time I ate gluten (well, knowingly at least). Unknowingly is another story that SO does not have a happy ending.

When I say that going gluten-free changed my life, I'm not exaggerating! I'd love to share my gluten-free story with you.

Read about my gluten-free before and after and everything along the way since my (correct) diagnosis.

Do you have a question about celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity? Or would you like to share tips on how you personally determine if a product is gluten-free? Share with the Hold the Gluten community in the comments below!


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Maureen

Maureen

Maureen Stanley was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2005. Way back before gluten-free was “mainstream“. Maureen created Hold The Gluten blog and podcast in 2008 as a way to connect members of the gluten-free community across the world.

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