What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in some grains (wheat, barley and rye).  Gluten is made up of gliadin and glutenin and when mixed with water etc. it becomes sticky and holds the flour together.  Wheat has the highest content of gluten making it the obvious choice for making pasta, bread, cakes, biscuits etc.  Old fashioned varieties of wheat such as spelt also contain gluten.  Rye and barley have lower levels of gluten and are often mixed with wheat to achieve a lighter result. Although oats does not contain gluten, it is often contaminated with wheat or rye and is best avoided by those intolerant to gluten.  Some people with coeliac disease can have a reaction to a protein in oats.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune digestive sensitivity to one or more of the proteins found in gluten. These proteins damage the villi of the small intestine and interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food e.g. folate, calcium, iron.  It is important to note that you can still be sensitive to gluten even if you do not have coeliac disease.

Gluten is found in most cereals, pasta, breads, biscuits, pies, sauces, prepared meals etc. Be aware that many foods that may seem gluten free but often are not.  For example careful label reading is important when choosing items such as chutneys, relishes, mustard, coffee substitutes, drinking chocolate, beer, ale, vegemite, sausages, imitation seafood, icing sugar mix, cornflour (some is wheat based), many bottled sauces (some soy, tomato), commercial soups baked beans and thickeners found in ice cream, custards, cheeses, yoghurts.  However, as intolerance to gluten is becoming widely known, ‘gluten free’ products are  more readily available.

Gluten free grain alternatives include corn, rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat.  However, be aware that many gluten free products are often made using highly processed grains such as corn, soybean, rice and potatoes and can be high in starch.