So, what’s the problem with gluten?

I’m being interviewed by BBC Radio Solent tomorrow morning about a gluten free article I’ve written for Menu Dorset magazine. I’m gathering my thoughts and preparing for their questions …

Close up of ripe harvested ears of wheat, a staple ingredient in cooking
Close up of ripe harvested ears of wheat. Photo Credit:

What is gluten?

It’s a type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It can cause an immune response in the gut – in those who have coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.

What is coeliac disease?

I don’t like calling it a disease because you can’t catch it! If you are diagnosed as coeliac you have an autoimmune response to any trace of gluten in your food. Basically, your small intestine’s immune system starts to attack the cells in the lining of its own walls – destroying the crucial villi – the finger-like protrusions where a lot of absorption of nutrients takes place. Without them you don’t absorb your food’s nutrition properly. I was diagnosed because I was very, very anaemic as a baby. 

If you have that autoimmune response and the lining of your intestine is destroyed, you become very sensitive to lots of other things too. For example, I can’t eat the gliadin in oats, lactose in milk products or even drink coffee because it contains a protein that cross-reacts with gluten.

Why do so many people have a problem with gluten?

If you’re not allergic or intolerant then that’s great (I believe quite a lot of us are although we may not know it’s the cause of symptoms). Even if you can tolerate it, the problem is we’re being exposed to too much of it because:

  1. We’re eating more gluten-containing foods than we’ve ever eaten before – most peoples’ daily diet consists of breakfast cereal or toast, sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and pizza or pasta for dinner. That’s not a varied diet and it completely lacks the vital vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as fibre and ‘good’ fats contained in vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.

    Overhead view of a rounded crusty loaf of cob bread on a wooden bread board incised with the word Bread
    Photo credit:

2.  The amount of gluten in modern wheat has increased as a result of genetic modification/farming methods compared to ancient varieties

3.   Extra gluten is added to bread so that the production time can be massively reduced. Gluten is released and activated when bread is proven, kneaded and rested. High speed bread making methods don’t do that so they add gluten to make it sticky.

Is it just gluten that’s the problem with grains?

No, grains contain other anti-nutrients that cause us problems. Phytic acid, lectins, gliadin – they can all cause digestive issues and other symptoms such as headaches, joint pains, even depression. The only grain I really eat now is rice because I’ve always loved it. I always soak it in plenty of cold water with a squeeze of lemon or cider vinegar for as long as possible to remove these other toxins. 

Also, refined grains (white wheat flour particularly) cause an insulin spike when they’re eaten. We are increasingly overweight, obese and insulin-resistant or outright diabetic. I believe this is down to our reliance on refined grains in our diet, as well as sugar, of course.