What Is Gluten?

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iStock

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 tolerance. It typically receives all visitors (in the form of foods, beverages, or microbes) and allows them to pass without argument. After an infection, however, the gut can become hypervigilant—overly cautious about who comes and goes. In some cases, gluten becomes an unwelcome guest.

Although scientists aren't sure why gluten becomes so offensive, the reasons may lie in the protein's unique makeup.

Proteins are strands of amino acids folded into long, twisty coils. Gluten is rich in two particular amino acids, proline and glutamine, that set it apart from other proteins.

Proline makes gluten "kinky"—helping it form a tight, compact structure that's nearly impenetrable to digestive enzymes, a biological version of a lock-on. Some scientists believe gluten's impervious nature is responsible for triggering an overzealous immune response in susceptible people.

The glutamine in gluten (say that five times, fast) is a target for an enzyme called tissue transglutaminase, or tTG for short. Under certain conditions, tTG goes rogue: It alters glutamine's otherwise benign structure, making it more allergenic and initiating a cascade of immune-related events that ultimately leads to the development of celiac disease. When doctors test for celiac disease, they look for abnormally high amounts of antibodies like tTG in the blood. However, the only definitive way to diagnose the condition is by biopsy of the lining of the small intestine.

The only "cure" for celiac disease is total avoidance of gluten. "If a person has celiac disease, even a little bit of gluten can make them very sick," says Christian.

That can be hard, because gluten is everywhere. It can be found in the usual wheat-containing suspects (breads, pasta, cereals), less obvious candidates (communion wafers), and hidden in strangely odd places (soy sauce, beer, and some cosmetics). The average person consumes between 4 and 20 grams of gluten per day. Most of that comes from wheat-containing bread: One slice contains about 4 grams of gluten. To counter this abundance—and to capitalize on the myth that gluten is bad for everyone—a thriving gluten-free market has emerged. In 2015, one market analysis estimated that the global market for gluten-free foods was worth roughly $4.2 billion; an analysis from May 2017 put it much higher, at nearly $15 billion

With celiac disease affecting only 1 percent of the population, why are so many people buying and eating gluten-free foods? Gluten takes the blame for a litany of other ills, ranging from skin disorders and headache to fibromyalgia and psychiatric problems, often lumped into a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, for short. The number of people with NCGS may be high—as many as 18 million people in the U.S.—but its occurrence is hard to measure.

"Unfortunately, there's no specific test for [NCGS], so it's basically a diagnosis of trial and error after ruling out celiac disease," says Watkins. Scientists aren't in agreement that NCGS is a legitimate health concern, however, and some suggest its symptoms might be due to something unrelated to gluten.

With all the talk about gluten, it seems gluten sensitivities are becoming more common. "Celiac disease is becoming more prevalent because we're doing a better job of finding it, I think," says Watkins. But the rest of it? Probably just a fad.

Editor's note: This post has been updated. 

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

The Fourth of July is the epitome of summer—and after several months spent indoors, you need some outdoor fun more than anything. Check out these 15 summer must-haves while they’re on sale and save an extra 15 percent when you spend $50 or more with the code JULYFOURTH15.

1. CARSULE Pop-Up Cabin for Your Car; $300 (20 percent off)

Carsule tent from Mogics.
Mogics

This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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2. Mosquito Killer Lamp; $30 (25 percent off)

Mosquito-killing lamp.
Kinkoo

If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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3. Super Shield Mosquito Repellent Electronic Watch Band; $17 (57 percent off)

Mosquito repeller watch.
Safe Touch

While a lamp is a great non-toxic solution for keeping bugs at bay, active individuals need a bug repellent that can keep up with their lifestyle. This wrist wearable keeps you safe from mosquitoes anywhere by using ultrasonic sounds to drive them away.

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4. ZeroDark 3-Piece Tactical Set: Flashlight, Lantern, and Headlamp; $20 (66 percent off)

Aduro flashlight set.
Audro

If you want your summer to be lit, this set will do the trick. All puns aside, this trio of LED brightness is perfect for camping fun and backyard parties, or it can be stored in the car for emergencies.

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5. Outdoor Collapsible Cooler and Camp Table Set; $64 (27 percent off)

First Colonial cooler.
First Colonial

Cookouts are easy with this cooler and table set that chills your drink until you're ready to pop it into one of the four convenient cupholders. Bring this set camping or out by the pool for convenience anywhere.

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6. Trident: Underwater Scooter; $550 (21 percent off)

Trident underwater scooter.
Geneinno

If you’ve ever dreamed of better mobility while exploring the water, you’re not alone. The Trident underwater scooter, which raised over $82,000 on Indiegogo, can propel you through the water at up to nearly 6 feet per second, which isn't that far off from how fast Michael Phelps swam in his prime. The battery on it will last 45 minutes, allowing you to traverse with ease.

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7. Go Portable Solar Oven; $119 (14 percent off)

GoSun solar grill.
GoSun

Bake, roast, steam, or broil anywhere you bring this portable oven. Measuring in at just over a foot long and weighing only two pounds, the oven will work in most daytime weather conditions and can hold around 13 ounces of food.

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8. 3-in-1 Waterproof Bug Zapper Lantern; $25 (50 percent off)

3P Experts bug zapper.
3P Experts

Mosquitoes tend to be a big problem at night, partly because it's hard to swat in the dark. This lantern will light the area and zap mosquitos from nipping at you in the process.

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9. Urban E-Skateboard: Basic Version (Orange); $120 (73 percent off)

Urban Rover E-Skateboard
Urban Rover

This e-skateboard is perfect for getting around during the summer. You'll catch a breeze while you’re cruising on the battery-powered platform and won’t break a sweat when you pop the compact board in your bag.

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10. H2 Headlamp: Waterproof, Rechargeable LED Wide 180° Angle Headlight; $37 (26 percent off)

Headlamp from One80Light
One80Light

Camping, car troubles, and sports all pose a problem at night. This LED headlight will light up your surroundings across a 180-degree radius for prime visibility, meaning your outdoor activities won't have to stop when the sun sets.

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11. Whirlwind Cool Bladeless Mini Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

Bladeless fan
Whirlwind

This portable fan comes in a powerful handheld size so you can keep cool while on the move. Unlike other portable fans, this one has a sleek, bladeless design and features three different speeds.

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12. Bladeless Personal Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

Bladeless fan
3P Tech

This bladeless fan won't just keep you cool while you work on your laptop—it also has a built-in rechargable battery that you can use to charge your phone.

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13. MOGICS Coconut: Portable Waterproof Light; $37 (24 percent off)

Mogics portable lamp.
Mogics

This portable light is designed to adapt to your lighting preference. It self-inflates in a few seconds and can bounce, get wet, and set the mood.

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14. Lunatec 1L Hydration Spray Water Bottle; $25 (21 percent off)

Lunatec spray water bottle.
Lunatec

A water bottle can do more than hydrate you. This one has a spray nozzle that can create shower, stream, and mist patterns for doing dishes while camping, sharing a sip without sharing germs, and washing off those muddy shoes after a long hike.

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15. Sport Force Hydration Backpack; $25 (68 percent off)

Hydration backpack.
It's All Goods

Hiking enthusiasts know how important it is to stay hydrated, but carrying around awkward jugs of water is a hassle. This unique hydration backpack can be filled with two liters of water and features a convenient drinking nozzle that extends to the user's mouth. Now, you can replenish those fluids without breaking stride.

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It's Black Birders Week—Here's Why Celebrating Black Scientists and Naturalists Matters

Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images
Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images

BlackAFInSTEM, a community of Black scientists, kicked off the inaugural Black Birders Week from May 31 through June 5. What started as a group chat organized by birder Jason Ward evolved, in a matter of mere days, into a week-long celebration of Black naturalists. “It is a movement that was started out of pain, and its goal is not necessarily pleasure, but uplifting,” Alexander Grousis-Henderson, a zookeeper and member of BlackAFInSTEM, tells Mental Floss. “We want people, especially our community, to come out of this stronger and better.”

The movement started after a video of a white woman harassing and threatening Christian Cooper, a Black birder, went viral. As part of Black Birders Week, you can follow along as professional and amateur Black naturalists, scientists, and outdoor enthusiasts share their expertise and experiences and celebrate diversity in the outdoors. Throughout the week, members of BlackAFInSTEM are facilitating online events and conversations like #AskABlackBirder and #BlackWomenWhoBird.

Though Black Birders Week was created for Black nature enthusiasts, everyone is welcome to participate. Follow along the #BlackBirdersWeek hashtag, or check out the @BlackAFInSTEM Twitter account. Ask questions, engage with their posts, or simply retweet the scientists to help amplify their voices.

Scroll through the hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, and you’ll find a stream of Black naturalists honoring their love of the outdoors. “We want kids to see our faces and attach them to the outdoors, and we want our peers to recognize that we belong here too,” Grousis-Henderson tells Mental Floss.

Not only does Black Birders Week make space for Black birders to share their passion, it’s also a way for the community to raise awareness of their unique experiences and address systemic racism in nature and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). According to Grousis-Henderson, it’s an opportunity to foster a dialogue within the birding community; to prompt conversations about diversity within the outdoors.

“We wanted to draw on what we know about the diversity of biological systems and bring that perspective to social systems,” Grousis-Henderson says. “A diverse ecosystem can stand up to a lot of change, but a non-diverse ecosystem, one lacking biodiversity, is easy to topple.”

The movement goes beyond birding. Alongside Black Birders Week, Black outdoorspeople are sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be a Black person in nature—a space where they’re far too often made to feel unwelcome and unsafe. Organizations like Backyard Basecamp, Melanin Base Camp, and Outdoor Afro continue to foster the Black community's connection to nature.

"Black Birders Week is an opportunity to highlight joy and belonging, to showcase expertise, and to remind people that Black people have been inextricably connected to nature for generations," Yanira Castro, communications director for Outdoor Afro, tells Mental Floss in an email. "It is a celebration of that relationship."