Gluten – is it healthy or harmful? Where does gluten occur

Gluten – what is it? Is gluten healthy or harmful? Gluten is a mixture of glutenin and prolamine proteins that are found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. In recent years, avoiding gluten has become a fashion, but for many people, it’s also a necessity. Gluten is seen as the culprit for many non-specific health problems that arise from hypersensitivity to this food ingredient. Check what diseases gluten causes and in what products it occurs.

Gluten is a mixture of vegetable proteins found in cereal endosperm – wheat, rye, barley and oats. It is composed of glutenins and prolamin gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley and avenin in oats.

Gluten – what is gluten?

Gluten is formed from glutenins and prolamines when kneading the dough with flour and water. Gluten then takes the form of a springy complex responsible for the properties of products valued in bakery, i.e. flexibility and conciseness.

Cereals with high gluten content are readily used in the baking industry due to much greater technological usefulness than cereals with a small amount of gluten. Bread made from the flour of these cereals is more flexible, lighter and less dense. Only a few decades ago gluten could only be found in cereals and their products.

Currently, it is added to many different food products, such as sausages, spices, and highly processed foods. This and the fact that cereals are genetically modified to increase their gluten content means that the consumption of this protein is much higher than it was several decades ago.

Gluten – is it healthy or harmful?

The problem of potentially hazardous gluten was caused about 50 years ago when the work on genetically modified wheat began. Hybridization, because this type of modification was used, was aimed at creating a wheat variety with higher gluten content, and thus – with better grain properties for bakers and growers.

The ancient varieties of wheat, that is, earthen and flatfish, have a smaller genome, fewer chromosomes and encode fewer gluten proteins. Common wheat (Triticum aestivum) contains the largest genome, including the so-called D genome, which is responsible for the culinary properties of flour and in which area genetic modifications were most often made.

Gluten and celiac disease

Celiac disease is genetically determined hypersensitivity to gluten. Contrary to the name, it can lead to health problems throughout the body, not just the digestive system. It is an autoimmune disease in which intestinal villi are impaired (and in the absence of treatment), and thus there is a serious disruption of nutrient absorption. Until recently, celiac disease was considered a disease affecting only children.

Currently, it is being diagnosed more and more often in adults in whom no symptoms have been observed so far. Celiac disease occurs in 1 per cent. Europeans, more often among women than men. Interestingly, this disease is practically not found among the inhabitants of Africa, China and Japan due to the low consumption of products containing gluten.

The classic symptoms of celiac disease are diarrhoea or constipation, short stature, weight deficiency, enlarged abdominal circumference or anaemia. They mostly affect children. Adults usually have atypical symptoms, including minor gastrointestinal problems, abdominal pain, stomatitis, anaemia, emotional disorders. The basic method of treating celiac disease is to follow a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten allergy

Gluten is one of the most common food allergens. Even 25 per cent of people with allergies may have symptoms of allergy to gluten, actually to gliadin present in wheat. In the case of allergies, the body’s response is immediate, manifesting itself in respiratory problems, skin lesions or other, including anaphylactic shock.

Hypersensitivity to gluten

Hypersensitivity to gluten is not a celiac disease and not an allergy, but another recently described type of abnormal immune response to gluten proteins derived from cereals. In 2011, scientists confirmed the existence of a disease entity, which is hypersensitivity to gluten, and assessed that it affects several per cent of the population and has no genetic basis.

Symptoms appear from a few hours to several days after eating gluten. Therefore, we are dealing with a late reaction of the body and an IgG antibody response, not IgE, as is the case with gluten allergy. Gluten hypersensitivity is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome or other psychosomatic-related intestinal disorders. It can also be associated with mental disorders and autism. The method of treating hypersensitivity is to use a gluten-free diet. Unlike celiac disease, where the diet should be used throughout life, in hypersensitivity, it may be enough to temporarily exclude gluten from the menu.