Meaning of gluten

Meaning of gluten is for those who do not want to give up bread unnecessarily and are wondering what the alternatives are.

There is good news to be had, but only if you are prepared to ferment and bake your own sourdough; the preparation time is only five minutes, but then you have a long waiting-period. Today's loaf will only be cooked tomorrow.

The protein in wheat is made up more or less of equal quantities of two substances.

  1. Gliadin which gives the dough its viscous nature and makes it extensible.
  2. Glutenin that is responsible for the dough's strength and elasticity.

When exposed to water these proteins combine together to form gluten; its elastic-properties enable the dough to balloon and rise after trapping the gas formed by the yeast.

bread machine loaf

This page was updated by Bernard Preston on 13th July, 2021.

Actually there are several types of gliadin and glutenin, but there is no need to go into that depth.

There are differences in the gluten, but typically that in wheat, rye and barley are the prime suspects when it comes to ulcerative-colitis.

These two substances are just some of the many sources of the amino-acids that the human body uses to build up the unique proteins, according to our own DNA. Most we get from meat, eggs and dairy products; fish and legumes too. There is a little in flour.

In the consideration of the deleterious-affect of gluten on some folk, we will only consider gliadin; that is the real spoke in the wheel.

Gliadin

Gliadin consists of long chains of amino acids, constituting a problem if they are not properly digested and broken down into individual units; in particular it is rich in the problem child for those who are gluten-sensitive, namely proline.

It is these undigested fragments of gliadin that when absorbed set up the autoimmune reaction to gluten causing a very serious disease called celiac-sprue.

Glutenin on the other hand has less proline but in fact forms one of the largest protein molecules found in nature, giving dough its unique elastic-properties.

Gluten sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity has been increasing dramatically in the last 50-years; researchers in Sweden found that the abrupt introduction of foods rich in gluten to babies when women stopped breastfeeding was a very important factor.

Instead they recommend a gradual increase in wheat products from about 6 months, whilst continuing to breastfeed.

The prevalence of frank coeliac-disease is still only about 1%. Interestingly poorer people are less prone, with relative wealth making refined carbohydrates more available from a much younger age.

It is claimed by the Real Bread movement in the UK that those enjoying baked products made with completely unrefined 100% flour and no added enzymes are far less likely to become gluten-intolerant.

However up to 10% of people feel that they are sensitive to wheat, and that indigestion of one sort or another is lessened by avoiding those grains containing gluten.

This is thought to have been greatly exacerbated by the addition of certain enzymes to commercial baking in the last 70-years, changing the structure of the gluten into a form that they are reacting to.

What is seriously problematic is when concerned people replace these grains with white rice and other refined starches. Most gluten-free foods are highly processed.


"We need to look at our meals as a whole and, if we reduce the amount of one food, it is important to choose a healthy-replacement."

- Cardiovascular Research, July, 2021


A better option is replacing wheat not with refined starches but with whole grains like brown-rice, maize or rye; quinoa and buckwheat too have no or little gluten. Using the sourdough method to bake improves the proper digestion of the protein in flour.

Proline and glutamine

Intestinal epithelium

"We showed that these proline and glutamine-rich epitopes are exceptionally resistant to enzymatic processing in the gut."

 - Hausch et al[1]


Gluten consists of long chains of amino acids, of which proline and glutamine constitute a large fraction. Fortunately neither are on the essential list and can be synthesised in the body from others; humans can survive perfectly well without wheat.

However there is much research indicating that those who regularly enjoy 100% whole grains are much more hale and hearty; they are the best source of vitamin E and many of the B-complex, and the bran not only provides bulk for the stool, but also slows the absorption of glucose into the blood stream.

The problem researchers have found is that gluten is exceptionally resistant to enzymatic processing in the gut of some people; the result is that partially digested fragments are absorbed into the body at the brush border membrane where they stimulate a T-lymphocyte immune reaction[1].

This is an inflammatory response in which the body reacts badly to its own tissues.

Normally the small intestine has a rug-like epithelial lining, with villi projecting into the lumen of the gut, increasing the surface area where absorption of these amino acids occurs; but they slough off in this inflammatory process, and are seen in the stool, which is why those suffering from Coeliac and Crohn's disease also experience malnutrition.

Notice in particular the tight junctions in the graphic above which serve to prevent the penetration of these fragments of amino acids, known as peptides, that are only partially-digested.

In people who are gluten sensitive, some of these partially digested peptides may penetrate the tight junctions producing an immune response to these short chains of amino acids that are not recognised by their own bodies as belonging to them.

Amino acids have variable carbon chains, R below, with carboxyl and amine groups situated in different positions.

This gives each amino-acid its unique character.

Amino acid structure.

Glutamine, seen below, in fact has two amine groups, NH2. This type of structure is typical of all the amino acids except proline.

Glutamine structure R

Proline is believed to be the chief problem child. It has a ring structure, known in chemistry terms as an aromatic ring; can you see it below?

Four carbon atoms and one nitrogen in a ring-structure is quite different to all the other amino acids.

Something to do with this ring structure apparently is why it is more difficult for the enzymes in the small intestine in gluten intolerant folk to break the peptide-chain down into individual amino acids.

Proline structure.

In its most severe form this absorption of peptide fractions causes a serious condition known as Coeliac disease; a toxic reaction to gluten. Symptoms include confusingly either chronic diarrhoea or constipation, abdominal bloating and pain; weight loss and fatigue too.

Life-long abstention from grains containing gluten was formerly considered the only solution. 

Meaning of gluten

Meaning of gluten goes into some of the chemistry which you may need to understand if it is your desire to continue enjoying wheat products but not suffer from the undesirable effects of eating bread.

There is in fact good news for most sufferers of Coeliac disease; there is a solution, and it is called sourdough bread.

A fairly long exposure of the dough, much longer than you would get from the conventional loaf, to a concoction of lactobacillus, other friendly bacteria and wild yeasts will break down these polypeptide links before they even enter your mouth as a slice of bread.

Researchers found that the majority of a group of folk with serious Coeliac disease could in fact enjoy sourdough bread with no reaction, provided it was prepared in a particular way; long exposure to the bugs and using low-gluten flours. And of course avoiding the enzymes that the baking industry adds to the mixture.

REfined starches

Researchers are very concerned that those with supposed gluten issues are replacing wholewheat with highly-refined alternatives.

It is abundantly clear that removing one refined starch from our daily food, say a cookie, and adding a wholegrain such as corn on the cob has a profoundly good effect on our all-cause of death[6]. Doing exactly the opposite is a huge negative.

Another issue is the removal of lignans in the refining process; they are central to the prevention of malignant breast tumours and cardiovascular disease. It's no mystery that poor health prevails.


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Coeliac vs Crohn's disease

Coeliac-disease is an autoimmune condition in which your body attacks itself when exposed to the gluten found in wheat, barley and rye; and sometimes oats. The solution is to avoid those grains, or better still eating them only when they have been exposed to the predigestion of the sourdough process.

This fermentation process has to be done in a particularly thorough and specific way; sourdough bread off the shelf in the supermarket probably will not do. It needs a long time.

Crohn's disease on the other hand is an inflammatory bowel condition, more prevalent in the obese and rather different to that of a Coeliac patient. In many ways they are similar though.

Obesity is associated with high levels of inflammatory cytokines; this is probably one of the causes of the severe reaction experienced by those with Crohn's disease to gluten.

Diarrhoea is common to both. They tend to have abdominal-pain, cramping and indigestion; and weight loss. Rectal bleeding is a feature too as the lining of the bowel sloughs off. 

The distinction often has to be made by use of a biopsy of the lining of the bowel, from a colonoscopy or perhaps via the stomach.

Obese Crohn's disease patients may in fact be able to eat gluten-rich grains baked using the sourdough method, provided they lose weight. The longevity diet has some merit.

These are all variations of what is generally known as Inflammatory Bowel disease, or IBD.

Ulcerative colitis is another of these autoimmune conditions but, unlike Crohn's disease, affects only the colon and rectum; it is thus less likely to cause the malnutrition of those IBDs that inflame the small-intestine.

It takes a specialist to make the diagnosis, but always understanding the meaning of gluten appears to be the key to coping with IBD.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity

Gluten intolerance comes in another form where all the tests for the autoimmune diseases are negative. Folk react badly to wheat with many of the same symptoms; abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fatigue. Skin rashes are not uncommon too.

If all tests are negative, you improve by removing wheat and the symptoms return when you again add it to your food, then it's known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

So recognise though that there is a great difference between commercially-made bread, with all the added enzymes and short proofing-time, and sourdough; chalk and cheese. The meaning of gluten is central to your understanding of this complex subject.

The mind is a strange creature

Although certainly less than ten percent of Western folk suffer from one or other form of gluten-tolerance, nearly a third of Americans are trying to avoid it, and clearly feel they have benefited.

The problem is that they often replace wholewheat products with refined carbohydrates, mainly white-rice, cornmeal and potato flours. This results in a drop in fibre, and mineral and vitamin deficiencies; and obesity since weight loss research clearly fingers these denatured foods.

Researchers combining seven large studies, excluding those with the autoimmune form of gluten intolerance, in what is known as a meta-analysis, concluded that those following gluten-free meals were definitely less robust. For example, they were more likely to become diabetic.

Understanding the meaning of gluten is truly important.

Glyphosate, also known as roundup

Glyphosate was originally patented as an antimicrobial agent by disrupting the shikimate pathway of bacteria and plants in the synthesis of the aromatic amino acids that humans cannot produce; we depend on our ingested food and bugs for them[3]. It's an important factor in this discussion of the meaning of gluten.

By killing the microbes in our gut, friend and foe alike, and promoting the overgrowth of pathogens, Roundup is contributing directly to gluten-intolerance by inhibiting the proper digestion of protein fragments; this explains why there has been a dramatic increase in people who are unable to enjoy bread and other wheat products.

It is estimated that gluten intolerance has risen by a factor of nearly five-times in the last fifty years.

Now you understand why the meaning of gluten is so important, and the rising causes of intolerance.

Sourdough bread

Foaming sourdough starter

Researchers reporting in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology[2] reported that 14 of 17 patients unable to eat baker's yeast bread were able to enjoy sourdough when it was exposed to selected lactobacillus strains for 24 hours before baking.

In our usual sourdough bread recipe[4] we in fact expose the mixture for only 4 hours to the lactobacillus-starter, but then we do not suffer from gluten intolerance.

Should bread cause indigestion, but no bloating, diarrhoea or rectal bleeding, then use of a probiotic such as explained in these kefir benefits is recommended; again lactobacillus and other bacteria are improving the fermentation of the starch in the colon. Not all abdominal pain should be attributed to the meaning of gluten.

Nutritious flour

There is an enormous lie in the baking industry; frankly it is abhorrent and permitted worldwide. So long as millers do not remove more than 51% of the bran and wheatgerm they are legally entitled to call their product wholemeal; yet it is anything but the nourishing flour that we humans need for vitamins, fatty-acids and bran for the colon.

On the left is our freshly ground 100% flour, from which we bake real bread and on the right is the so-called wholemeal counterfeit; can you spot the difference? It's chalk and cheese.

Google "real bread" to read more on the movement sweeping the UK; folk who are tired of eating tasteless commercial-loaves that manufacturers claim are nutritionally enriched.

All of this is central to the meaning of gluten; it's the protein in wholemeal flour.

Wholegrain wheat flour.

Summary

If you are gluten intolerant you may be able to have your cake and eat it; you will have to learn to ferment the dough and bake your own bread. Once you get into the swing of it, it takes only five-minutes; we do it every day.

Sourdough bread tastes divine and has no need for the processed meats and sugary jams that the supermarket loaf demands. And it is rich in the vitamins and bran our bodies must have.

It is interesting the heart attacks were virtually unknown until one hundred and fifty years ago when bakers started refining flour and removing the anticoagulant vitamin-E.

Understanding the meaning of gluten is about great tasting bread but, more important, about well-being; we think it is absolutely worth the five minutes spent every day.

To do it properly though you need an electric flour mill and a friendly farmer who will sell you bags of grain straight from the silo; then your sourdough bread costs almost nothing, except for five minutes of your time every day.

Start with the wholemeal from the supermarket, and then consider going the next step; flour mills are expensive but our Hawo is 30 years old and has paid itself off many times over. It's busy every single day. 

There is a new generation of electric grinders called Mockmills that are cheaper and process the wheat more finely apparently. I have no experience of them. Never buy one that you cannot disassemble; the stones need to be cleaned periodically.

Type "electric flour mill" into Site Search in the main menu.

100 percent whole meal

As you can see the meaning of gluten is a complex subject; milling your own home bake bread flour is only for those who are passionate about their well-being and love the taste of good food.

Grains with gluten

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Bulgur

Grains without gluten

  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Maize, also known as corn
  • Sorghum
  • Buckwheat

Foods with hidden gluten

  • Beer and malts
  • Processed meat
  • French fries
  • Medication
  • Sauces and salad dressing
  • Soups
  • Starch
  • Snack bars

Take home

The take-home when analysing the meaning of gluten is that whole grains are strongly associated with greater wellness; avoiding them just because you think you may be sensitive to wheat makes you prone to nutritional deficiencies and obesity. This is especially true if you instead use refined rice or potato flour, for example.

Vitamin E for example, is quite difficult to get in adequate amounts, especially all eight tocopherols. If you avoid whole-grains you are likely to become deficient; it is one of the chief causes of premature frailty[5] and fertility problems.

Absolutely avoid the commercially packed gluten-free foods. Rather replace the wheat with more fruit and vegetables, legumes and unrefined oats or maize for example.

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