Gluten and Wheat: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

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Posted: 28/09/2014 Print

Gluten and Wheat: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

Guest blog by Vicky Ware

Where Do You Stand With Gluten and Wheat: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

Vicky Ware takes a look at some of the scientific evidence behind gluten’s nutritional qualities.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a family of proteins found in cereal grains such as wheat, but also in barley, rye and spelt. Gluten is in all foods which contain cereal grains and is sometimes extracted from cereals and added separately to other foods to change their texture [1].

What Does it Do to Your Body?

While the exact mechanisms are not known, gluten does initiate a number of disorders from coeliac disease to wheat allergy, gluten-related ataxia and peripheral neuropathy [2].

While some of these disorders are only caused in people who have a genetic susceptibility, gluten does seem to be causing problems for others too. It is not easily digested, and causes permeability in the wall of the small intestine [3].

It seems that cells in the lining of the small intestine die and do not regrow due to exposure to gluten [4], this allows small parts of food which would otherwise be held in the intestine to enter the blood stream where they have unknown effects on the body and is known as ‘leaky gut’.

It seems that some individuals may be more susceptible to gluten sensitivity than others. Relatives of those with coeliac disease were found to have more negative effects of a high gluten diet than people who did not have a relative with the disease [5]. The negative effects included damage to the lining of the gut.

Further research has shown that gluten causes intestinal damage leading to ‘leaky gut’, regardless of whether the individual has coeliac disease [3]. However, other research has shown that only coeliac disease results in leaky gut with gluten sensitivity not altering gut permeability [2].

Gluten has also been implicated in people with irritable bowel syndrome, with a gluten free diet causing relief from symptoms in a significant number of people [6].

When digested, wheat gluten can be broken down into molecules called gluten exorphins. These molecules can activate opioid receptors in the brain – in a similar way to the molecules in milk we discussed7 in a previous blog. In coeliac patients these molecules have been found in the blood [8].

Research has shown that gluten exorphins do have effects on the peripheral and central nervous system, meaning they have an effect on behaviour and potentially diseases of the nervous system [9].

Are People With Coeliac Disease the Only People Who Should Cut Out Gluten?

Bread Cut

It does seem that it isn’t only those suffering from coeliac disease who have problems digesting gluten. A disorder known as ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ has now been defined [10]. In fact, 5-10% of the population is thought to clinically benefit from a gluten free diet [11].  While not a large percentage, it does mean that more people than just those suffering from coeliac might benefit from cutting gluten out.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is controversial, although now widely accepted as a true disorder in the scientific community [12].

The non-coeliac gluten sensitivity may in fact be sensitivity to wheat, not all gluten containing foods. One study found that there seemed to be two kinds of wheat sensitivity, that which resembled coeliac disease in its symptoms and that which seemed more like an allergy to wheat [13].

Gluten sensitivity has been associated with diseases other than coeliac. For example, some individuals with multiple sclerosis have been shown to have immune reactions to gluten. The cause of multiple sclerosis is unknown, however scientists are uncovering a complicated network of interactions between the food we eat, our immune systems and disease processes [14].

We Eat Too Much

Eating too much of one food can cause your body to react to the food in a way it wouldn’t if you were eating a more varied diet.

It is estimated that the majority of American’s get their food from only 3 species of plant: rice, maize and wheat which accounted for 42% of all the food calories grown in 2009. That is a massive percentage of anyone’s diet to be solely coming from three species of plant. Considering that we evolved eating a highly varied diet of whatever was on offer, with fluctuations depending on what was growing in that season, it isn’t surprising we’re not adapted to eat solely one thing.

As I’m sure those suffering from any kind of gluten intolerance know, gluten finds its way into a lot of the foods we eat on a day to day basis. Sort of like dairy sneaking into foods which feel different to eat (yoghurt, milk, cheese), you could be eating what feels like a varied diet but contains a lot of wheat.

To make matters worse, modern day bread has a higher gluten content due to reduced dough fermentation time [15].

It’s Not the Same As it Used To Be

Horse ploughing

Mechanised farming means highly refined flour and use of pesticides seems to have contributed to the rise of disorders related to gluten although the reasons behind this are not fully known [16].

When foods are highly refined, our bodies process them in a different way. For example, a really important component in human nutrition is fibre. By refining wheat flour, we are exposed to gluten without any of the fibre.

Modern wheat has also been bred to produce larger crops, all of the same type.

In the past we’d have eaten wheat which came from many varieties of the plant – now most of it is high-yield dwarf wheat. Modern wheat has been shown to have lower nutrient content, containing less iron, zinc, magnesium and copper than it used to – this dramatic decline in nutrients happened after the 1960s [17].  The more crop the plant produces, the less nutrients the resulting cereal contains [18].

Modern wheat also produces more signs of inflammation in the body [17].

Worth Bearing in Mind

PubMed is a search engine used to find papers published in scientific journals.

The ratio of Google to PubMed hits for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is higher than 5000:1 – meaning there are many more people talking about the disorder on google than there are papers being published about it. This makes it seem that gluten insensitivity does exist, but is more a media fuelled epidemic than a true one [19]. On the other hand, it could be that more people are suffering from gluten insensitivity than the research currently reflects.


Unfortunately, it would seem that as with all nutritional quandaries, it’s complicated. However, with this one there is something you can do. If you think you might be suffering the effects of gluten, try cutting it out. If you feel better, that’s a massive bonus. If you don’t, then go back to eating a well-balanced diet including gluten and think of the people who can’t every time you take a bite of a freshly baked loaf of full-gluten bread.


Vicky has a degree in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology and is currently studying for a  MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology.  She is also an endurance athlete.

  1. Blomfeldt, 2011. Mechanical properties and network structure of wheat gluten forms
  2. Sapone, 2012. Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification.
  3. Drago, 2006. Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: effects on coeliac and non-coeliac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines.
  4. Dolfini, 2005. Cytoskeleton reorganisation and ultrastructural damage induced by gliadin in a three-dimensional in vitro model.
  5. Doherty, 1981. Gluten-induced mucosal changes in subjects without overt small-bowel disease.
  6. Vasquez-Roque, 2013. A controlled trial of gluten-free diet in patients with irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhea: effects on bowel frequency and intestinal function.
  7. Fukudome, 1992. Opioid peptides derived from wheat gluten: their isolation and characterisation.
  8. Pennington, 2007. Detection of gluten exorphin B4 and B5 in human blood by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry/mass spectrometry.
  9. Takahashi, 2000. Behavioural and pharmacological studies on gluten exorphin A5, a newly isolated bioactive food protein fragment, in mice.
  10. Biesiekierski, 2011. Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without coeliac disease: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial.
  11. Lis, 2014. Exploring the popularity, experiences and beliefs surrounding gluten-free  diets in non-coeliac athletes.
  12. Rostami, 2012. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity: a patient’s journey.
  13. Carroccio, 2012. Non-coeliac wheat sensitivity diagnosed by double-blind placebo-controlled challenge: exploring a new clinical entity.
  14. Shor, 2009. Gluten sensitivity in multiple sclerosis: experimental myth or clinical truth?
  15. Gobbetti, 2007. Sordough lactobacilli and coeliac disease.
  16. Belderok, 2000. Developments in bread-making processes.
  17. Fan, 2008. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years.
  18. Zhao, 2009. Variation in mineral micronutrient concentrations in grain of wheat lines of diverse origin.
  19. Di Sabatino, 2012. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity: sense or sensibility?

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