What is gluten anyway?

“I don’t think there is any gluten in this…”

Famous last words. If you suffer from celiac or gluten intolerance, you have probably already experienced at least one meal prepared for you where the chef (with the best of intentions) completely forgot – or maybe never even knew – that one of the main ingredients contained gluten. Like the time my mother-in-law made an amazing “gluten free” beef stew and then described over dinner the beer she’d added to flavor it.

If you’re one of the many kind hearted people who would like to make a gluten free meal for someone you care about but need more information about how to avoid gluten… read on!

So, what IS gluten?

The quick and dirty definition: A protein found in wheat, barley and rye (and other related grains) which is also often used in the fermentation process to augment the chemical reaction. Oats are usually avoided (although they do not contain gluten) because they are typically processed in facilities that also process wheat or other such grains… however, it is possible to find oats that have not been cross-contaminated.

Why does it matter? What harm can it do?

Despite Biblical tradition that bread is the staff of life, for some people it can be very harmful. People who suffer from celiac sprue or gluten intolerance cannot handle gluten, which damages their small intestine when they come into contact with it. For a really terrific definition of gluten and its effects, click here: Entero Lab: Outstanding Explanation of Gluten and Celiac.

What kind of foods contain gluten?

  • Most breads
  • Most pastas
  • Most cereals
  • Malt vinegar
  • Soy Sauce
  • Vegetable gums
  • Fermented alcoholic beverages such as beer

How can a product like soy sauce contain gluten? My soy sauce does not contain wheat or other grains!

In many cases, grains are used to process other ingredients. This means that there can be “hidden gluten” in your food that is not directly indicated on the label. A good rule of thumb: if it doesn’t specifically say gluten free, it probably isn’t.

These things generally contain hidden gluten:

  • Soy sauce (unless it states gluten free on the label)
  • Vegetable gums
  • Malt or malt flavoring (unless made from corn)
  • Vegetable protein (unless made from soy or corn)
  • Flour products (unless made from pure rice, corn, potato, soy, tapioca or sorghum flour)
  • Modified starch or modified food starch

Other tricky words to look out for (indicating gluten) when you are looking through an ingredients list: emulsifier, starch, flavoring, stabilizer

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