Gluten is a major component of bread, which has become a staple in modern diets. This means that the majority of people in the UK are consuming gluten on a daily basis – but do you know how it might be affecting your health? This article will explain what gluten is, and how it interacts in our body.
Gluten is a protein combined with a starch molecule, and is found primarily in grains, and makes up to approximately 80% of the protein found in wheat. The word ‘gluten’ is derived from the Latin word glue, and it is gluten which is responsible for the stretchy and chewy texture of bread. Aside from breads, gluten is also found in some beers, soy sauce and can be added to a number of foods as a stabilizing agent. It is often also used as a major component of imitation meats, meaning that vegan/ vegetarians may consume large quantities of gluten.
Gluten in the body
Celiac disease – This is a relatively common autoimmune disease, with approximately 1% of the population suffering from it, although as much as 95% of sufferers are not diagnosed, because the effects are mild or not considered to be out of the norm. In celiac sufferers, gluten stimulates an immune response, which raises antibody levels which attack cells in the small intestine. This results in inflammation of the villi in the small intestine, which damages and destroys them. The villi are an important structure in the digestive system, which increases the surface area of the intestine to allow absorption. If these villi are destroyed the body will not be able to absorb many nutrients, especially fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, K, and E, which can result in a deficiency. Other symptoms of celiac disease often include diarrhea, fatigue and lactose intolerance. However a vast variety of other symptoms have been reported on top of these, such as stiff joints and even vomiting, and celiac disease is associated with an increased risk of cancer and infection. This means that people suffering from celiac disease cannot consume any gluten, and are often extremely sensitive to small amounts.
Gluten sensitivity – Gluten sensitivity affects much more of the population than celiac disease. The amount of people it effects is almost impossible to estimate, as so few people report it, and it has only relatively recently been recognized by the medical community. Gluten sensitivity has the same symptoms as celiac disease (fatigue etc), but the villi are not inflamed or damaged as they are with celiacs – which originally lead people to think it was caused by something other than gluten.
Recent research, such as the double blind study carried out by Jessica R. Biesiekierski et al, has demonstrated that although inflammation does not occur, gluten does activate the innate immune system in a similar way to celiac disease, but without the damage to the intestine cells. Elevations in tTG, EMA or DGP antibodies were recorded in non celiac sufferers when gluten was consumed, and increased mucosal permeability was also detected, which is characteristic of celiac disease. This does show that non-celiacs may also be susceptible to the negative effects of celiac disease. The symptoms for gluten sensitivity tend to be less serious than that of celiacs, and some people can consume small amounts of gluten and not develop symptoms.
Gluten in your food
Gluten is most abundant in foods derived from grains, especially wheat. The gluten content of wheat has drastically increased over the last few hundred years do to selective breading as gluten gives bread a soft texture. This means that breads and pastas contain the highest amounts of gluten – and should be avoided by the majority of the population. Gluten is often found in smaller quantities in a large number of other foods as it can act as a stabilizer. These foods cannot be consumed by celiacs, but may be consumable by gluten sensitive people in small quantities.
Gluten is a grain derived protein, which causes an immune response in a large percentage of the population. It has been speculated by some that even the entire population will experience gluten sensitivity to some extent, but this has yet to be confirmed in clinical trials. Despite effecting a large amount of the population, there is a surprisingly little research on how gluten interacts with our body, and is an area which demands much research to determine the extent of its effects. Current evidence suggests that high gluten foods should be avoided by most people, and as gluten holds no nutritional properties, avoiding gluten will not have any negative health implications.
Main image courtesy of Morten Wulff