What is gluten free?

Gluten free is a diet that is free from ingredients that contain gluten. Gluten free is different from wheat free. Gluten (from Latin “glue”) is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye.

Many items in your store cupboard contain gluten. Things you just wouldn’t think; from soya sauce to mustard and from stock powder to brown sauce. It is really important to check the ingredients of every item in your cupboard before using it. Recent labelling changes should make it easier to spot gluten containing foods but you need to be alert.

What is gluten?
Gluten is the composite of a gliadin and a glutelin, which is conjoined with starch in the endosperm of various grass-related grains. The prolamin and glutelin from wheat (gliadin, which is alcohol-soluble, and glutenin, which is only soluble in dilute acids or alkalis) constitute about 80% of the protein contained in wheat seed.

The seeds of most flowering plants have endosperms with stored protein to nourish embryonic plants during germination. True gluten, with gliadin and glutenin, is limited to certain members of the grass family. The stored proteins of maize and rice are sometimes called glutens, but their proteins differ from gluten.

What does gluten do in food?
Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, and often giving the final product a chewy texture. Worldwide, gluten is a source of protein, both in foods prepared directly from sources containing it, and as an additive to foods otherwise low in protein.

Have we always eaten gluten?
The history of gluten in our diets is relatively recent. Human genetics and our basic diet has evolved over the course of two million years. Two million of years ago our diet consisted primarily of wild plants, fruits, animal protein, and fats. Only for the last several thousand years have we been consistently consuming refined food and grains. Prior to that much of the grain consumed were wild grasses and their seeds. Their overall use though was minimal due to the processing needed to make them edible and their limited caloric return. Through the cultivation and farming of wild grasses we paved the way for the first agricultural societies. This led to increasing technological sophistication, rapid population growth, and the emergence of modern societies as we know them today.

Grains offer considerable benefits as a food. Their caloric value is inexpensive, they provide the ability to feed a large number of people, and they can be stored for long periods of time. Grains play a significant role in the diet of most of the worlds population.

Why gluten free?
There are numerous reasons to be gluten free. It is estimated that 0.5-1.0% of the population are sensitive to gluten due to Coeliac (celiac) disease.

There are also believed to be a range of gluten intolerances or senstivies which whilst not presenting the long term damage of coeliac disease cause symptoms people would rather live without.

It is also believed by some groups that gluten is not a ‘natural’ part of a healthy diet and many people simply choose to avoid gluten.

Ultimately whatever your motivation to avoid gluten it is essential to plan, and follow, a balanced diet.

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