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 it 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 each, 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 our unique proteins, according to our own DNA; most we get from meat, eggs, dairy products and legumes. 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 consists of a long chain 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 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 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 they replace their 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; 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 your own body as belonging to you.

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

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.


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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 dough.

Coeliac vs Crohn's disease

So Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease in which your body attacks itself, when exposed to the gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats. The solution is to avoid grains containing gluten, 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 fermentation time.

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

Obesity is associated with high levels of inflammatory cytokines; this is probably the cause 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, 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.

Crohn's disease patients may in fact be able to eat gluten-rich grains baked using the sourdough method, provided they lose weight, if obese.

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

Ulcerative colitis is another of these autoimmune diseases but, unlike Crohns, affects only the colon and rectum, and thus less likely to cause the malnutrition of those IBDs that affect 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, fatigue and skin rashes.

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 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 that they replace whole wheat products with refined carbohydrates, mainly white rice, cornmeal and potato flours. This results is a drop in fibre, and mineral and vitamin deficiencies.

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.

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 microbes for them[3].

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 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.

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 dough for only 4-5 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.

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, but 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 wholemeal counterfeit; can you spot the difference? It is chalk and cheese.

Google real bread to read more on the movement sweeping the UK; folk who are tired of eating tasteless, nutritionless commercial bread.

whole grain wheat flour.


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 supermarket bread demands. And it is rich in the vitamins and bran our bodies so need.

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 farm; 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 25 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 grind the wheat more finely apparently. Type electric flour mill into this search engine.

100 percent whole meal

As you can see this is a complex subject; making 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






Grains without gluten







Foods with hidden gluten

Beer and malts

Processed meat

French fries


Sauces and salad dressing



Snack bars

Take home

The take home is that whole grains are strongly associated with greater wellness; avoiding them just because you think you may be gluten sensitive makes you prone to nutritional deficiencies, especially 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 be deficient; it is one of the main causes of premature frailty[5].

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

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Hilton, KZN

South Africa