The Good Gluten You Can Probably Eat Just Fine
Successful health recovery is typically like the slow, methodical peeling of an onion with persistent, consistent lifestyle modifications to achieve incremental improvements. This takes patience, time, and determination as opposed to the band-aid approach of popping a handful of vitamins each day in a (futile) attempt to magically make up for a lousy diet, lack of quality sleep, or a stress filled home or work environment. While supplement popping might help somewhat in the short term and buy you some time to make impactful lifestyle changes, over the long haul it won’t make much of a difference.
This is because health silver bullets are nonexistent in my experience as a Nutrition Educator for the past 20+ years (are you listening supplement companies?). Furthermore, a food that might trigger symptoms for one person might be beneficial for another. As a simple example, tomatoes contribute to problems with chronic pain and digestive issues for those individuals with a nightshade sensitivity. For most people, however, tomatoes and products containing them are just fine to eat.
The same can be said for gluten, a complex and difficult to digest plant protein present in some grain based foods. It is also present in many meat substitute products like seitan. Some people can eat gluten with no symptoms while others bloat up within minutes of a single bite. Still others suffer more insidious gluten related symptoms that result in slow development of autoimmune disease over time. This would be the case for those with Celiac disease.
Despite the problems that many are having with gluten today, it would be a mistake to say that all gluten is bad.
Gluten has been consumed for thousands of years by healthy cultures with no downside. The alpine living Swiss, for example, consumed a significant percentage of dietary calories as dense sourdough bread made from gluten containing rye. This culture suffered from virtually no degenerative disease including the absence of dental caries as documented in words and pictures by Dr. Weston A. Price early in the last century. The young men from these Swiss villages were so pleasing in character, strength and physique that the Vatican favored them for appointment to the Swiss Guard.
Dr. Price also discovered that the alpine living Swiss he examined that did suffer from cavities were invariably the same young people who had left the nurturing foods of home at around age 18 to live elsewhere only to find themselves with one or more rotting teeth within a year or two (or worse tuberculosis). Interestingly, Dr. Price discovered upon examination of these young people who had returned home that their dental caries had healed and were no longer causing any distress. Similarly, not a single case of tuberculosis was reported in the Swiss alpine villages consuming a native diet loaded with gluten despite the disease being rampant elsewhere in Switzerland and Europe at that time.
Wheat and Gluten Today are Very Different
It’s no surprise to learn that the wheat on the market today and the gluten it contains are quite different than the wheat eaten long ago by traditional societies. Modern wheat has been hybridized over the years (and in obscene fashion using irradiation in the last few decades) to be very high in gluten, so much so that many people have developed an intractable intolerance to it. No doubt the dependence of modern society on antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals that seriously compromise the integrity and flora of the gut environment plays a role as well.
Be aware that even “healthy” sprouted whole grain loaves purchased from the healthfood store have gluten frequently added because this plant protein provides the “glue” for holding a modern, yeast rise bread together making it ideal for factory processing and shipping long distances. For those with no gluten sensitivities at all, it is still a good practice to never buy bread that has wheat gluten or vital wheat gluten as an additive because this is indicative of an indigestible loaf that has not been manufactured with the best interests of the consumer in mind.
The Good Gluten Most People Don’t Know About
While those with Celiac disease would do best to avoid all gluten, those with non-genetic gluten intolerance will be pleased to learn that there is such a thing as good gluten that could allow you to enjoy wheat again!
Even if you don’t have any issues with gluten right now, it is best, in my opinion, to consume this good gluten at home so that ill effects don’t develop as the years pass from the difficult to digest, hybridized and sometimes toxic wheat that is most widely available today.
This good gluten is only found in a single variety of wheat: einkorn.
Einkorn is the only form of wheat left on planet earth that is completely unhybridized. It is an ancient wheat and not to be confused with heirloom wheat varieties such as Red Fife, Halychanka, or White Sonora, all of which are hybridized.
Science has studied the type of gluten in einkorn, and some stark differences were noted – huge differences, in fact, that incredibly enough make einkorn super digestible even for those with gluten intolerance.
In order to understand how different the gluten in einkorn is, however, we need to talk about gluten itself and the different types that are contained in other types of wheat.
What? There are different types of gluten?
Yes there are!
Not All Gluten is the Same!
Let’s start off by debunking one very persistent myth about einkorn.
According to the USDA, einkorn contains roughly the same or even slightly more protein (remember, gluten is the protein in wheat) per 100 grams as these hybridized wheat strains.
As a result, being lower in gluten is not the reason why those who are gluten intolerant can usually eat einkorn just fine.
Rather, einkorn is more easily digested because the gluten is flat out different.
Let’s dig into that further and see what scientists have discovered ….
The Proteins that Form Gluten
There are two types of protein that form gluten: Glutenins and gliadins.
These proteins bond together in gluey fashion to form gluten when flour containing them is mixed with water or another liquid. The gluten that forms in bread dough gives it the ability to hold air bubbles.
Glutenins are described as either high molecular weight or low molecular weight. This is a very important distinction because bread flour is considered to be ideal for modern breadmaking purposes when it contains a large amount of high molecular weight glutenin. This influences, to a great extent, the finished volume of a loaf as well as the mixing time and elasticity.
If you have ever baked with einkorn and compared it to baking with other types of wheat, you no doubt have noticed that it is less elastic and much more sticky. This is because einkorn is lacking in some of the high molecular weight glutenins that are present in ample amounts in hybridized wheat.
With regard to gliadins, the other type of protein that forms gluten, the situation is similar. Researchers subdivide gliadins into several different types based on their amino acid sequences. In einkorn, groups of y-gliadins present in other types of wheat are completely missing!
Moreover, compared with hybridized wheat like spelt, kamut, durum, emmer, and modern wheat, einkorn has a very different ratio of glutenins to gliadins. Most notably, the ratio of gliadins to glutenins in einkorn is much higher. In hybridized wheat, the ratio is about 1:1.
If the research on the different types and ratios of glutenins and gliadins in einkorn versus other types of wheat intrigues you, you can learn more in this scientific journal: European Research and Technology (2009) 229:523–532.
Learning to Transition to Einkorn in the Kitchen
On a practical note, another helpful resource on the history of einkorn and why it is so different from other forms of wheat is the recently published book Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat by Carla Bartolucci. I highly recommend it especially if you’ve tried baking with einkorn and are finding it difficult to produce results similar to other wheat strains due to the differing gluten composition in einkorn along with its increased stickiness and reduced elasticity.
In this book, Carla also talks about her daughter Giulia’s struggles with gluten intolerance which led to her discovery of the wonders of einkorn. Her daughter’s gluten intolerance was so severe that by the age of seven, “she had a constant dry cough and asthma, frequent tonsilitis, and enlarged lymph nodes”. As if this wasn’t enough, her hair began falling out. The great news is that Giulia dramatically improved after removing all hybrid wheat from her diet and despite her severe gluten intolerance, is able to eat and enjoy the good gluten in einkorn just fine!
On a personal note, my family switched to einkorn a few years ago and have never been happier with that decision. I buy 10 lb bags of organic einkorn berries (you can also buy organic einkorn flour in 10 lb bags too) and grind it myself for the lightest flour you’ve ever seen (you won’t believe it’s actually whole grain and unbleached). My family particularly loves the waffles, pancakes, and cookies I make with einkorn, and my gluten intolerant husband has no issues whatsoever digesting it. If you prefer sprouted einkorn, you can use that too for extra digestibility and vitamins.
If you’ve never tried einkorn before, perhaps it’s time to give good gluten a try!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
More Information on Amazing Einkorn and Gluten
Einkorn: Recipes for Nature’s Original Wheat
The Reasons Why Our Family Switched to Einkorn
No Knead Einkorn Sourdough Bread
Farro: Ancient Wheat But Should You Eat It?
Einkorn Sourdough Crackers with Nut Butter
The Real Reason Wheat is Toxic (It’s Not the Gluten)
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah earned a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Government (Financial Management) from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.