What Is Gluten ?


Foods High in Gluten

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD 
3 min read
Gluten is the name for proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten is also added to foods as a thickening agent or to provide texture and flavor.

Gluten has a stretchy quality to it and is the ingredient that gives bread and baked goods their chewy texture. Eating whole grains like wheat, barley, and rye is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. However, gluten can cause health concerns for some.

Some people experience adverse reactions and health risks when eating foods containing gluten. The peptides found in gluten are resistant to stomach acids, which can make it hard for some people to digest. These peptides can cause various symptoms from mild indigestion to more serious health conditions.

Gastrointestinal discomfort or allergy symptoms can develop as a result of eating gluten. Many people have developed celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system seeks gluten as a toxic invader and attacks it, resulting in intestinal damage. People with celiac disease are at risk for developing more severe disorders due to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals.

If you have any symptoms of gluten-sensitivity, you may want to consider removing gluten from your diet. There are four conditions that require a strict gluten-free diet:

Celiac Disease

About 1% of Americans have celiac disease, however, most cases go undiagnosed. People with celiac disease experience gastrointestinal symptoms like excessive gas, diarrhea, unexplained weight loss, and nutrient deficiencies.

Prolonged ingestion of gluten in people with celiac disease results in damage to the intestinal lining. This damage affects the digestive system’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals. People with celiac disease have a high risk of developing osteoporosis, arthritis, infertility, and neurological problems.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)

Some people diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome may have gluten sensitivity. It’s possible to have difficulty digesting gluten without having celiac disease. If you experience gastrointestinal symptoms after eating wheat, barley, or rye, but have tested negative for celiac, you may have NCGS and could see improvement on a gluten-free diet.

Wheat Allergy

Wheat and other cereal grains can cause allergic reactions in some people. Typical allergy symptoms include:

  • Itching/swelling of the mouth or throat
  • Skin rash
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hives
  • Vomiting/diarrhea

Keeping a food diary can help you determine if your allergy symptoms occur after eating wheat, barley, rye, or oats.

Dermatitis Herpetiformis

Dermatitis herpetiformis is a relatively rare skin reaction due to gluten sensitivity. Lesions or blisters form on the skin, most commonly on the forearms, knees, and buttocks. People experiencing dermatitis herpetiformis typically also have celiac disease as they are caused by the same antibodies.

Foods made from wheat have the highest amounts of gluten. However, wheat flour is also commonly added to foods, so it’s important to read nutrition labels if you are avoiding gluten.

The 8 most common sources of gluten include:

  1. Bread
    This includes all types of bread (unless labeled “gluten-free”) such as rolls, buns, bagels, biscuits, and flour tortillas.
  2. Baked Goods
    Baked goods like cake, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, and pies contain gluten as well as pancakes and waffles.
  3. Pasta
    All wheat pasta contains gluten, including spaghetti, fettuccine, macaroni, lasagne, and ravioli.
  4. Cereal
    Not all breakfast cereals contain wheat, but many do, so be sure to check the nutrition labels. Also, be aware that oats are often raised and processed with wheat. Therefore, unless they are labeled gluten-free, oat products will also contain gluten.
  5. Crackers
    Popular snack foods like crackers, pretzels, and some types of chips have gluten.
  6. Beer
    Beer is made from malted barley, which has gluten. Some liquors have added wheat, so be sure to research the ingredients.
  7. Gravy
    Gravies and ready-meals containing gravy contain gluten. Powdered gravy mixes also contain gluten unless specifically labeled “gluten-free.”
  8. Soup
    Many canned and boxed soups use wheat flour as a thickening agent. Check nutrition labels to find premade soups without gluten.

Trying to avoid gluten entirely can be very tricky at first.  It’s important to read labels carefully. The best way to reduce gluten in your diet is to stay away from the foods listed above and replace them with naturally gluten-free foods such as:

  • Corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas
  • Fresh fruit or gelatin with whipped cream for dessert
  • Zucchini noodles topped with spaghetti sauce
  • Breakfast cereals made from corn or rice (but check for additives such as coloring)
  • Raw veggies with dips instead of crackers
  • Gluten-free beer, red or white wine, or other liquors like vodka, gin, bourbon, and whiskey
  • Gluten-free gravies that use cornstarch for thickening instead of flour
  • Gluten-free soups