What is gluten?

Whether you have celiac disease or not, by now you've probably heard about "gluten." You may even know someone who avoids it. But what exactly is "gluten" and where does it come from? Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition of gluten. However, gluten can be generally described as the sticky, stretchy substance that remains after dissolving the soluble portions of certain grains. There are several recognized types of "gluten," including at a minimum wheat gluten, rice gluten and corn gluten. However, not all gluten has been shown to trigger symptoms in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. So the simple fact that something is referred to as being or containing "gluten" does not in itself determine with certainty whether or not it is capable of triggering symptoms in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, despite what that name may imply.

More precisely, researchers currently believe it is actually only a handful of specific proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and certain other hybrid grains that cause symptoms in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Those specific proteins are gliadin and glutenin (primarily found in wheat), hordein (primarily found in barley), and secalin (primarily found in rye). Other grains such as rice, corn and sorghum--in addition to other plant-based food sources such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts and many others--do not contain proteins known or believed to trigger celiac disease or gluten sensitivity even though they may contain or be capable of producing "gluten." So a more accurate term might be "celiac-triggering proteins" or simply "triggering proteins."

Confusion can arise from the fact that the word "gluten" has gained widespread everyday usage as a generic term describing anything that can trigger symptoms in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Compounding the confusion is the fact that many doctors and researchers have accepted this arguably imprecise and overbroad use, and even the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) rule adopts it. For these reasons, it looks like "gluten" is here to stay as the term to watch for on product labels and in advertising when trying to avoid triggering proteins.

Grain Potential Triggering Protein(s) Trigger Status
Wheat Gliadin & Glutenin CONFIRMED TRIGGER
Triticale Gliadin, Glutenin & Secalin CONFIRMED TRIGGER
Oats Avenin Split of Opinion / Disputed
Corn None Identified Not A Trigger
Rice None Identified Not A Trigger