You’ve probably heard a lot about gluten. But what is gluten exactly? And why do we hear so much about it?

Gluten is a set of proteins that’s found in some grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. The word gluten is derived from Latin and means “glue” because it helps grain products stay together and makes them chewy.

Gluten is the main protein found in common wheat products. In fact, gluten makes up 75 to 85 percent of the protein content in whole grain bread.

History and First Uses of Gluten

Historians believe that people began harvesting grains in 8800 BC along the Fertile Crescent, or the land Assyria, Mesopotamia, and the Nile Valley. By 5000 BC, the practice had spread to Greece, Cyprus, India, and Germany.

People continued to harvest grains containing gluten throughout the centuries. However, the industrial revolution in the 19th century made the bread-making process much easier. Wheat became a common food staple in American households.

In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed whole grains as an essential part of a healthy diet.

How Gluten Works

Gluten consists of hundreds of different proteins. However, the two main proteins within gluten are gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin helps the food rise, and glutenin keeps it elastic. Gluten starts working when gliadin and glutenin come in contact with water. As water and grains mix, the proteins begin to stick together, or crosslink.

The crosslinks form an elastic network within the grain. Mixing, kneading, or stirring the grain speeds up this process. When linked together as gluten, the two proteins become powerful. They are flexible, elastic, and give foods the chewy consistency we enjoy.

Although gluten’s main role is to provide elasticity, it also aids in other important baking processes. Here are a few:

  • Gluten helps bread to rise. Although gluten is not directly responsible for rising (that’s the job of the leavening agent, like yeast), it traps gas. Bread rising is essentially the gluten network expanding.
  • Gluten helps products stay moist. When dry, it can absorb up to 1.5 times its own weight in water. As a result, gluten products often stay fresh longer than their gluten-free counterparts. Gluten acts as a natural preservative.
  • Compared to other products, gluten is slow-acting. This means that, when baking products with lots of gluten (like breads), there is often more room for error than products with less gluten (like cakes).

How Gluten is Digested

When we eat gluten products, the proteins are broken down by enzymes that are secreted throughout the digestive tract in the pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. These enzymes simplify the proteins into amino acids.

Glutenin is a long protein with a large surface area. As a result, the enzymes typically have no trouble digesting it. However, gliadin is smaller with less surface area. Our enzymes cannot fully break it down.

Nobody’s body can fully break down gliadin. However, people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease experience problems with this process. For example, a person with celiac disease experiences an autoimmune response when gliadin reacts with the enzyme transglutaminase.

We understand the importance of maintaining your health. All Spoons locations offer gluten-free choices to meet your dietary needs. Visit our menu or ask a staff member to learn more.