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Gluten is a set of proteins present in some grains, such as wheat. Among these proteins, soluble and insoluble in ethanolic solution, we can highlight the group of prolamines, soluble proteins that are related to celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune enteropathy triggered by exposure to gluten.

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Gluten is widely used in the food industry, especially in the bakery area, where it is responsible for giving elasticity to the dough. Currently, many foods have been obtained without the presence of gluten, in order to serve this public that cannot eat these proteins, in addition to the growing number of people who have adhered to a gluten-free diet.

What is gluten?

Gluten is the name given to a set of proteins present in some cereals, such as wheat, oats, rye and barley. It is present in the endosperm (tissue that accumulates nutrient reserves for the embryo) of the seeds of these cereals and its function is to nourish the embryo during the germination process. Gluten consists of two groups of proteins, prolamines, soluble in ethanolic solution (60%), and glutenins, insoluble.

These two groups of proteins are rich in two types of amino acids, glutamine and proline. Celiac disease, which we will talk about later, is related to exposure to the group of prolamines, such as the gliadins present in wheat; the secaline ones, in rye; the avenins, in oats; and hordeins, in barley. In addition to celiac disease, gluten is related to other diseases, such as wheat allergy and sensitivity to non-celiac gluten.

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Gluten-related diseases

Some diseases are related to gluten exposure, as we will see below.

Celiac disease

It is an autoimmune enteropathy (disease of the intestinal tract) triggered by gluten in genetically predisposed people, being prevalent in women. It is characterized by morphological and functional changes in the small intestine associated with malabsorption. Among the symptoms of celiac disease, we can highlight:

Abdominal pain and swelling

Diarrhea or chronic constipation

Lack of appetite

Low nutrient absorption

Weight loss and malnutrition

Growth retardation

Damage to the intestinal wall

Mood swings, such as irritability and apathy.

The diagnosis of celiac disease is performed through laboratory tests to detect specific antibodies, in addition to histological tests, such as biopsy of the small intestine. Celiac disease has no cure and its treatment aims to improve symptoms and prevent complications. Treatment consists of removing gluten from the diet, using a special diet under medical guidance.

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Sensitivity to non-celiac gluten

It is characterized by the appearance of some symptoms after ingestion of gluten. Some of these symptoms, which start hours or days after the consumption of gluten, are similar to those of celiac disease, such as abdominal swelling, diarrhea, mood swings, and it may also be common to have headache, joint pain and skin rash (red spots) in the skin). Gluten sensitivity can trigger inflammation in the gut, but not injuries.

The diagnosis of sensitivity to non-celiac gluten is carried out by assessing the symptoms and excluding the diagnosis of celiac disease and wheat allergy. Treatment consists of carrying out a special diet under medical guidance.

Allergy to wheat

It is characterized by the appearance of symptoms characteristic of allergies, minutes or hours after exposure to wheat. Among these symptoms, we can highlight itching, skin irritation, edema (swelling) on ​​the lips, nose, eyes and throat, allergic rhinitis, among other symptoms. It is important to note that allergy to wheat can lead to death due to anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction).

In addition to typical allergy symptoms, the individual may experience abdominal swelling and pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, headache, among others. Some clinical manifestations of this disease are noteworthy, such as exercise-induced anaphylaxis, a rare form of anaphylaxis that can occur with the practice of physical exercise after eating wheat; and baker’s asthma, which occurs when inhaling particles when working mainly with flour, triggering cough, rhinitis and asthma.

The diagnosis of wheat allergy is carried out via laboratory exam, for antibody detection, and skin test. Treatment is carried out by excluding wheat and derivatives from the diet. This should be done under medical guidance.

Gluten and food

As said, gluten is present in grain seeds, such as wheat, rye, barley and oats. Thus, foods produced from these grains may contain gluten. Gluten is widely used in the food industry, due to its ability to adhere, elasticity and insolubility in water. It can be used in the form of flour, starch or the grain itself. The following is a list of some products that may or may not contain gluten.

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Contains gluten Does not contain gluten 
Wheat Rice 
Oats Corn 
Rye Quinoa 
Barley Flaxseed 
Semolina Tapioca 
Triticale Grains and flours of legumes, such as chickpeas, peas and beans, and oilseeds such as almonds, walnuts and soybeans 
Seitan Potato starch and starch 

Caring for the diet of people who cannot eat gluten is not restricted to avoiding foods in which this is a present component. Special care is also needed with the handling and preparation of food, to prevent cross-contamination from occurring.

Care, such as avoiding preparing and cooking in the same container in which gluten-free foods are cooked, packaging food with and without gluten separately, and using different sponges and fabrics to wash and dry dishes used with food with and without gluten, are essential to prevent cross contamination.

Currently, the number of gluten-free products has grown in the market, with a view to serving mainly celiacs and people who have chosen to make diets without this group of proteins. It is important to highlight that gluten-free diets should only be carried out with indication and under medical guidance, as they can lead to a reduction in the consumption of certain fibers that help, for example, in the absorption of vitamins, control of triglycerides and glycemia, and maintenance of a healthy intestinal flora.

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