What is Gluten Free

What Is Gluten? Where Is It? How Is It Used?

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Updated on February 1, 2024

Reviewed by Ciaran Connolly

In today’s buzz about gluten-free this and gluten-free that, it’s important to slow down and actually find out: what is gluten? Gluten is simply a protein found in some grass-related grains from the genus Triticum (Helmenstine, 2014), such as wheat, barley and rye, which is overall of elastic texture and helps add protein as well as stretchiness and chewiness to bread/other products, as well as helping bread to rise. It is composed of protein and starch; since it doesn’t dissolve in water, the starchy aspects can be cleaned off, leaving only gluten. Additionally, stripping gluten with saline (salt water) can remove both starch and impurities from the protein; this method is favoured by some, depending on the specific use.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is the love child of gliadin and glutenin, two other proteins found in grains and wheat-like products. This can be performed by mixing water with dry flowers (Mattes, 2011). In the plant itself, gluten is used to “feed” new seeds and is often stored in the capitulum of the plant, or wherever the seeds (the “grain” portion of the plant) are. Basically: it’s a stretchy, chewy protein from plants of the genus Triticum.

Commercial-use gluten production and processing is a somewhat complex manoeuvre involving a lot of drying, water removal, beating and mixing and sifting grains to remove gluten and force it together, and finally milling the product into something usable.

What Is Gluten Used For?

This protein is incredibly diverse in its potential applicability. Of course, as it is present in triticum plants (wheat; rye, barley), it is used in bread, pasta and pastries, but especially bread. In order to make bread — which has to be able to retain its form without losing its texture and softness –, gluten is almost always necessary. So, even non-wheat flour or flour with its gluten stripped away originally, may have gluten added in to make the product very useful. Without gluten, a lot of products would not be able to rise or have much chewy/elastic quality to them.

Gluten is also popularly added to some foods and products to supply additional protein (since that is the crux of gluten). Examples of these will be discussed below, but the food is not gluten’s only common application.

Gluten is like “glue;” with its elastic quality, it binds and moulds things together. And, it was fairly cheap. So it isn’t surprising that it is utilized for such products as medications and lipstick. Usually, it is used as a binding agent.

What Foods Have Gluten?

If you want to know what contains gluten think wheat. Any and all wheat products contain gluten unless they say ‘gluten free’ — we know that. But here is a decent list of what foods contain gluten:

— Maltodextrin sometimes contains gluten. This is a starch combination, so it depends on what plant the starch comes from originally, and whether or not it contains gluten.

— WHEAT! Even non- “wheat” flours probably are essentially wheat, or have gluten added in, so realize that these probably have gluten as well.

— “Wheat-free” items: often, these are technically free of “wheat,” but are still made with triticum grains like barley and rye, or may have gluten added in at the end, despite being non-wheat plant in origin (Vann, 2014).

— Dog foods, cat foods (cheap/commercial/name brand). Just like most dog and cat foods contain that yucky yucky “meat byproduct meal,” they usually have gluten — which is also a cheap, easy-to-find protein. More often, however, they contain “corn gluten” — which is not actually gluten (only wheat plants have gluten!), just corn proteins.

— Imitation/vegan “meats.” From brands like Morning Star and Boca, beggie chik’n and other veggie patties, processed soy, and the like often contain gluten as a protein additive; it is cheap, easy to use, easy to get protein, especially for the meatless crowd.

— Beer. Unless it says “gluten-free,” your beer probably has gluten as a bonding agent.

— Sauces and gravies (including soy sauce). Again, gluten is often added here as a binding agent; keeping that gravy from looking like water and that sauce from running thin and flavourless.

— Ketchup (as an additive).

— Ice cream (as an additive).

— Beef/chicken/etc. bouillon. These dehydrated broth or stock cubes tend to contain heavy amounts of gluten!

— Cookies, cakes, pastries, cupcakes, muffins! That’s right, a lot of your sweets are made of wheat; so, they’re made with gluten.

— Flour tortillas. Made from wheat-based flours, these almost always contain gluten as well.

— Cereals, oats, etc.

What Else Has Gluten In It?

“What has gluten in it?” can be an important question for people with certain food allergies to ask, and it can’t be answered just with a grocery list. Here is a non-comprehensive list of non-foodstuffs that contain gluten:

— Some medications. There is no current FDA requirement that says drug companies must list gluten on their labels, so you cannot always be sure whether a medication contains gluten. Look for keywords like wheat, modified starch, caramel colouring and dextrin(s) within the “inactive ingredients” list of a given medication.

— Many lipsticks and lip balms.

— Vitamins. Again, no FDA regulations regulate labeling regarding the word “gluten” and medications or vitamins.

— Cosmetic products (besides lipstick). This can include lotion, shampoo/ shower gel/ soap, and makeups like foundation and sunscreen/ sunblock.

What Is Gluten Free?

As is the case with many “-free” labels on foods and other products, “free” does not mean “contains exactly 0%.” Most of the time, making a product that definitely does not contain even a speck of a certain component is impossible to create with any assurance. Instead, “free” equates with not having enough of something to make an impact. For example, “fat-free” foods might contain a minuscule amount of fat– say, less tan one mg. So, every country has its own regulation on what gluten-free really means.

In the United States, drug companies and the like do not have to list gluten in their ingredients. However, they do have to follow certain standards when listing foods as “gluten-free.” Mainly, that is: contain less than 20ppm (“parts per million”) of gluten in the entire product.

Some Gluten-Free Foods

— Almonds, walnuts, nut butter, almond milk and more! Most nut products are gluten-free unless gluten happens to be added as an additive, which is usually not the case here.

— Coconut and coconut oil. This is a great alternative for

— Hummus, and chickpeas.

— These seeds. These non-wheat plant seeds do not naturally contain gluten: flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.

— Most vegetables. These include spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus, turnips, beets, garlic, onions, leeks, fennel, artichoke, radishes, boc choy, and mushrooms, cabbage, etc., etc.

— These non-wheat grains: amaranth, sorghum, quinoa, rice (although occasionally processed with gluten), and millet(s).

— Legumes. This includes chickpeas, peas, beans and lentils.

— Fruit!

What Does Gluten-Free Mean?

Being gluten-free means that a product contains little enough gluten so as to not pose a hazard to someone with certain food sensitivities or disorders, like Celiac Disease. A food must contain less than 20ppm gluten in the United States, less than 10ppm in Canada (where foods must be labeled as containing gluten otherwise), and varying rates elsewhere around the world.

In the United States, labeling a product as “gluten-free” — although it must be under 20ppm — is entirely voluntary, and can be considered a marketing scheme, as with “non-GMO” labels.

What Is a Gluten-Free Diet Like?

It can be a tad expensive! Because so many non-gluten foods are processed with wheat or have gluten added, it’s a challenge to find gluten-free alternatives, and since these are typically from a smaller range of companies, they are more expensive. However, this diet should also be high in fresh, organic, “natural” (no regulations exist to specify that word as a label for consumers) foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Some popular gluten-free foods include:

— Gluten-free bread! These include wheat-free English muffins and bread made from flax seed, white rice and brown rice.

— Potato chips! Lots and lots of potato chips. Although crackers contain gluten, potato chips typically do not.

— Cheese, milk and creamers.

— Fresh eggs, especially organic.

— Meats that have not been marinated, breaded, etc.

— Lots of rice and corn products! Corn does not contain any gluten.

— Yummy fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some People Who Don’t Eat Gluten

Most commonly, people choosing to avoid gluten are those who have to — because of celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, both of which are characterized by an inability to process gluten. People with celiac disease experience serious discomfort upon consuming gliadin, which makes up half of the gluten.

Some avoid gluten for health reasons and fear of sensitivity.

References/ Sources

Helmentstine, A. M. (2014). What is gluten? Retrieved from Here

Mattes, M. (2011). Food studies: What’s up with gluten?

Vann, M. R. (2014). There’s gluten in that?

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