The ABCs of gluten

I think gluten allergies and gluten sensitivity are one of the most popular health-related topics for many people now. But do you know what gluten is, and why so many people try to avoid it?

Gluten is the main storage protein of wheat grains, such as wheat, rye, spelt, pasta, baked goods, cereals, and barley. Wheat is also added to almost all processed foods.

Gluten is a complex mixture of hundreds of related but distinct proteins, mainly gliadin and glutenin. It’s gliadin that is responsible for most of the negative health effects. Gluten is like a bacteria — we are fighting with bacteria every day, so it depends on how strong your immune system is as to whether a part of your body may get infections or symptoms.

For example, celiac disease, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a serious autoimmune disorder caused by the ingestion of gluten leading to damage in the small intestine.

Gluten can also not be completely digested. In normal digestion these long strands of protein are broken down by digestive enzymes, which break off groups of amino acids called peptides.

The majority of these peptides can be further broken down, absorbed through the intestine, and then transported and used in the body. However, gluten cannot be broken down by the digestive enzymes, because we don’t have the enzymes to digest it.

So indigestible fragments of gluten induce enterocytes (epithelial cells) to release the protein zonulin, which loosens tight junctions, and can cause gut leakiness in everyone. Some people react to gluten instantly, and it can even be life threatening.

Prolamins are rich in proline and glutamine, two amino acids that are difficult to digest. Neither proline nor glutamine are classified as essential amino acids. It is the high proline and glutamine content in gluten that prevents the proteins from being completely broken down by the digestive enzymes.

The long-term result of this is that toxic oligopeptides, proteins with up to ten amino acids, are present in the small intestine. Proline is degraded using an oxidase, which converts proline into glutamic acid using glutamate-gamma-semialdehyde. The glutamic acid in turn must be converted into glutamine so that it can be transported to the brain, where it is necessary for protein synthesis.

Gluten is heat stable and has the capacity to act as a binding and extending agent, which is why it is commonly used as an additive in processed foods for improved texture, moisture retention, and flavor. Gliadin contains peptide sequences that are highly resistant to gastric, pancreatic, and intestinal proteolytic digestion in the gastrointestinal tract.

So should we all do our best to avoid gluten?

That’s really hard to answer. Most people do feel better when they stop eating gluten, however, this can often also be achieved by cutting out processed food and eating more whole food sources too. Unfortunately dairy consumption can have effects similar to gluten in the human body, so if you are not eating gluten and still consuming dairy, you may not see health benefits.

The best approach could be to stop eating dairy and gluten for 3 to 4 weeks, then slowly, one thing at a time, add the foods that you eliminated back into your diet. As you do so, carefully watch your body’s reaction.

The results may surprise you! I often try this with my clients, and they are very often surprised, even if they didn’t think they had bad reactions before.

So the long answer is that you should experience it yourself on your own body, see the results, and then decide whether to consume gluten or not.

My personal suggestion for everyone is to cut out or minimize gluten. If you do so, do make sure to watch out for gluten free products on the market — unfortunately most of them are highly processed and a lot worse for your body than the gluten that you’re trying to avoid.

By 2020 it’s estimated that the gluten free food market will be valued at almost $8 billion.

Do you homework, and if the food you’re eating has a label on it then read each label carefully before you put that food in your body. You have only one place to live, which is your own body!


Ayda Ersoy is a nutrition and fitness director at The Diet Doc Hawaii. She can be reached at, or (808) 276-6892


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