Gluten is one of the most talked about topics in nutrition today—a quick googling yields more than 280 million results—and nearly everyone has an opinion on it. In 2014, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel summed up L.A.’s consensus on the subject: “It’s comparable to Satanism.” But despite the mother lode of information (and misinformation) available, few people actually know what it is. Mental Floss spoke to a pair of experts about this misunderstood substance. Here’s the lowdown.
Gluten is a marriage of two proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. A marvel of food chemistry, gluten mixed with water transforms into a gluey, stretchy mass. Heat up the mixture, and you get a light, airy framework, making it a valued partner in the kitchen. “Gluten provides structure to baked products,” Carla Christian, a registered dietitian and professional chef, tells Mental Floss. “Without gluten, you’ll end up with a product that’s crumbly and will fall apart because there’s nothing holding it together.”
Chefs and home cooks rely on gluten to provide the textural and aesthetic qualities in baked goods such as breads, pastries, and cakes. Gluten also plays an important nutritional role, providing a tasty source of plant-based protein in seitan and other meat substitutes, including mock duck, with its strange “plucked” texture.
Its culinary and nutritional qualities notwithstanding, gluten has a darker side. “For some reason, gluten seems to be the trigger in developing celiac disease in those who are genetically susceptible,” Runa D. Watkins, an assistant professor and pediatric gastroenterologist at University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, tells Mental Floss.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, their immune system reacts by attacking their small intestine, destroying its ability to digest and absorb nutrients. Celiac disease can cause diarrhea, bloody stools, skin rashes, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and a host of other unpleasant symptoms.
Although as much as 40 percent of the population carries the gene for celiac disease, fewer than 1 percent—roughly 3 million people in the U.S.—will develop the condition. Why some do, and others don’t, is a mystery, says Watkins. The prevailing theory is that some sort of infection is the trigger. One recent study found a virus that can cause celiac disease.
The default setting in the human gut is one of…