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The curious case of Benjamin Gluten

It's old and yet it's new! Gluten gets a bad rep, but is it justified? Let's dive into this family of proteins to determine the truth behind gluten.

The land before time

The human history is a long and complicated subject, but we can still use it to study today's concerns, with gluten being very much one of those. While gluten sensitivity does not affect a large portion of today's society, it is a topic of conversation and one that's been poorly understood. The lack of general knowledge about gluten in society is creating unnecessary tensions.

I'd say it's about time to burst that bubble wide open and what better way to do it, but prick it with the almighty needle of knowledge. See, our ancient ancestors were hunters, not farmers. Their diet was consisting of things they've managed to kill. While there is some limited evidence that humans ate some wild-type wheat cousins around 105 000 years ago, the first cultivation of wheat didn't happen before 9500 BC.

Credit: Fleur/Unsplash

Credit: Fleur/Unsplash

And even then, it had some health consequences, since our Neolithic brothers and sisters weren't evolved enough to consume gluten. Of course, their persistence in a push for a civilised society prevailed and humans managed to rapidly evolve their gluten tolerance. But humans even at the time already had a wide genetic pool, which only got wider as time has gone by. This in terms meant that some old genetic traits managed to sneak past evolution and reached today's society.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a common reference for a family of storage proteins, found in certain cereal grains. More specifically, gluten makes up to 75 percent of all the protein content in wheat, barley, rye, durum, spelt, emmer and einkorn. It's also found in cultivated oats, although the amount there is less. The storage proteins of maize and rice are also gluten. The important thing is the lack of context in the general gluten knowledge and more specifically - there are four primary types of gluten!

Credit: Anton/Unsplash

Credit: Anton/Unsplash

Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Omega are distinct groups, due to their properties, but more importantly, gluten sensitivity is not universal and it's caused by either one or two (Alpha and Beta together, as they are closely matched) of those primary types. What gluten sensitivity presents is the genetic heritage of gluten intolerance. This is where gluten gets recognised by the person's immune system and the reactions of your body to it are similar to a virus defence reaction - causing various symptoms, raging from mild to severe in some cases.

Gluten sensitivity explained

Gluten sensitivity is incredible complex and confusing condition, because the range of symptoms is very wide and can affect each individual differently. While some people can experience very mild, almost unnoticed irritations, often not being bothered to do a health check-up or being misdiagnosed, others can end up in the ICU without any warning. The thing with the gluten sensitivity is that the culprit genes can express themselves in a later stage in life. So you might suddenly become reactive to a thing that you've eaten for as long as you can remember . . out of thin air.

While inherited paleo gene expression is a well known cause, this gene does not respond to every type of gluten, which is great, because different cereal grains often contain only one or two types of gluten, but almost never all of them. Curiously, gluten content in most grains is even region/climate dependant. The same sort of wheat can contain Alpha in one region and Gamma in another, as close as 300 kilometres away. The real trouble for people is, if they react differently to different types of gluten, because while very rare, this condition exists and it's really difficult both to diagnose and live with.

Credit: khloe arledge/Unsplash

Credit: khloe arledge/Unsplash

This is where false advertising plays a major role, because Alpha and Beta are the most common forms of gluten and the ones that are often blamed for the most common gluten-related health issues. So most "gluten-free" grain products out there have been devoid of just those two. Not being mandatory for a package description, this causes people to have reactions to something they shouldn't in theory. Naturally that makes them to freak out, be confused and suspect misdiagnose. In fact, some people can react to Gamma, and in some extremely rare occasions, even to Omega. Those people will most probably not react to either Alfa or Beta. You see - it's very complicated...

What is gliadin then?

Gliadin is a fraction of the gluten protein that exists in all four types of gluten. Gliadin is actually the primary cause of gluten sensitivity, because it is enveloped inside the gluten protein and can reach the lower intestines. This is where the gluten sensitivity begins, because gliadin can't be broken down if it reaches this destination. People without gluten sensitivity break down the proteins long before they reach the intestines, but people with gluten sensitivity can't, unless the type of gluten is one of those who they can deal with (again - people are not sensitive to all types).

Credit: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

Credit: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

So the actual gluten sensitivity comes from gliadin, which does not exist in the maize and rice gluten. Gluten sensitivity, while complicated, has some simple explanation. If the gliadin envelope gets broken before it reaches the intestines - there's no issue and your body has the tools to break down gliadin into useful nutrients, without making a fuss about it. Unfortunately some people have inherited a gene, that if expressed properly, makes them intolerant to some of the four gluten types by not being able to break the enveloping protein in time.

Confusion . . I meant conclusion

This will be as messy as they come, so hold on tight! According to a recent study, 1 in every 100 people possesses that nasty gluten gene, but the gene's expression remains very rare, it's never the same and causes a very wide variety of symptoms. The distribution is also very uneven, with people in Europe and Asia rarely affected, to the point of calling gluten sensitivity a hoax (which is not). People from North America and Africa on the other side get a disproportionately bigger share.

Amanda M mentioned just yesterday how gluten sensitive people from the US are coming to Europe and have no issue eating pizza and focaccia, for example. Yes, that is very much possible, because as I've mentioned - every wheat contains a different type of gluten and every person is reacting differently or not reacting to different gluten types. But yes, gluten sensitivity is very much a thing, it can even be life-threatening, if you're not careful. So don't mock the gluten-free communities on social media, but help them with this knowledge instead!

Credit: EzumeImages/Unsplash

Credit: EzumeImages/Unsplash

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