What Is Gluten?

iStock
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. 

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

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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."