Gluten is not a single protein but a mixture of cereal proteins, about 80% of its dry weight (for example gliadins and glutenins in wheat grains), lipids, 5-7%, starch, 5-10%, water, 5-8%, and mineral substances, <2%.
It forms when components naturally present in the grain of cereals, the caryopsis, and in their flours, are joined together by means of mechanical stress in aqueous environment, i.e. during the formation of the dough.
The term is also related to the family of proteins that cause problems for celiac patients (see below).
Isolated for the first time in 1745 from wheat flour by the Italian chemist Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, it can be extracted from the dough by washing it gently under running water: starch, albumins and globulins, that are water-soluble, are washed out, and a sticky and elastic mass remains, precisely the gluten (it means glue in Latin).
- Cereals containing gluten
- Cereal grain proteins
- Wheat gluten proteins
- Properties of wheat gluten
- Gluten-free cereals
- Oats and gluten
Cereals containing gluten
It is present in:
- wheat, such as:
durum wheat (Triticum durum); groats and semolina for dry pasta making are obtained from it;
common wheat or bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), so called because it is used in bread and fresh pasta making, and in bakery products;
- rye (Secale cereale);
- barley (Hordeum vulgare);
- spelt, in the three species:
einkorn (Triticun monococcum);
emmer (Triticum dicoccum Schrank);
spelta (Triticum spelta);
- khorasan wheat (Triticum turanicum); a variety of it is Kamut®;
- triticale (× Triticosecale Wittmack), which is a hybrid of rye and common wheat;
- bulgur, which is whole durum wheat, sprouted and then processed;
- seitan, which is not a cereal, but a wheat derivative, also defined by some as “gluten steak”.
Given that most of the dietary intake of gluten comes from wheat flour, of which about 700 million tons per year are harvested, representing about 30% of the global cereal production, the following discussion will focus on wheat gluten, and mainly on its proteins.
Note: The term gluten is also used to indicate the protein fraction that remains after removal of starch and soluble proteins from the dough obtained with corn flour: however, this “corn gluten” is “functionally” different from that obtained from wheat flour.
Cereal grain proteins
The study of cereal grain proteins, as seen, began with the work of Beccari. 150 years later, in 1924, the English chemist Osborne T.B., which can rightly be considered the father of plant protein chemistry, developed a classification based on their solubility in various solvents.
The classification, still in use today, divides plant proteins into 4 families.
- Albumins, soluble in water.
- Globulins, soluble in saline solutions; for example avenalin of oat.
- Prolamins, soluble in 70% alcohol solution, but not in water or absolute alcohol.
gliadins of wheat;
zein of corn;
avenin of oats;
hordein of barley;
secalin of rye.
They are the toxic fraction of gluten for celiac patients.
- Glutelins, insoluble in water and neutral salt solutions, but soluble in acidic and basic solutions.
They include glutenins of wheat.
Albumins and globulins are cytoplasmic proteins, often enzymes, rich in essential amino acids, such as lysine, tryptophan and methionine. They are found in the aleurone layer and embryo of the caryopsis.
Prolamins and glutelins are the storage proteins of cereal grains. They are rich in glutamine and proline, but very low in lysine, tryptophan and methionine. They are found in the endosperm, and are the vast majority of the proteins in the grains of wheat, corn, barley, oat, and rye.
Although Osborne classification is still widely used, it would be more appropriate to divide cereal grain proteins into three groups: structural and metabolic proteins, storage proteins, and defense proteins.
Wheat gluten proteins
Proteins represent 10-14% of the weight of the wheat caryopsis (about 80% of its weight consists of carbohydrates).
According to the Osborne classification, albumins and globulins represent 15-20% of the proteins, while prolamins and glutelins are the remaining 80-85%, composed respectively of gliadins, 30-40%, and glutenins, 40-50%. Therefore, and unlike prolamins and glutelins in the grains of other cereals, gliadins and glutenins are present in similar amounts, about 40% (see Fig. 2).
Technologically, gliadins and glutenins are very important. Why?
These proteins are insoluble in water, and in the dough, that contains water, they bind to each other through a combination of intermolecular bonds, such as:
- covalent bonds, i.e. disulfide bridges;
- noncovalent bonds, such as hydrophobic interactions, van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonds, and ionic bonds.
Thanks to the formation of these intermolecular bonds, a three-dimensional lattice is formed. This structure entraps starch granules and carbon dioxide bubbles produced during leavening, and gives strength and elasticity to the dough, two properties of gluten widely exploited industrially.
In the usual diet of the European adult population, and in particular in Italian diet that is very rich in derivatives of wheat flour, gliadin and glutenin are the most abundant proteins, about 15 g per day. What does this mean? It means that gluten-free diet engages celiac patients both from a psychological and social point of view.
Note: The lipids of the gluten are strongly associated with the hydrophobic regions of gliadins and glutenins and, unlike what you can do with the flour, they are extracted with more difficulty (the lipid content of the gluten depends on the lipid content of the flour from which it was obtained).
Gliadins: extensibility and viscosity
Gliadins are hydrophobic monomeric prolamins, of globular nature and with low molecular weight. On the basis of electrophoretic mobility in low pH conditions, they are separated into the following types:
- alpha/beta, and gamma, rich in sulfur, containing cysteines, that are involved in the formation of intramolecular disulfide bonds, and methionines;
- omega, low in sulfur, given the almost total absence of cysteine and methionine.
They have a low nutritional value and are toxic to celiac patients because of the presence of particular amino acid sequences in the primary structure, such as proline-serine-glutamine-glutamine and glutamine-glutamine-glutamine-proline.
Gliadins are associated with each other and with glutenins through noncovalent interactions; thanks to that, they act as “plasticizers” in dough making. Indeed, they are responsible for viscosity and extensibility of gluten, whose three-dimensional lattice can deform, allowing the increase in volume of the dough as a result of gas production during leavening. This property is important in bread-making.
Their excess leads to the formation of a very extensible dough.
Glutenins: elasticity and toughness
Glutenins are polymeric proteins, that is, formed of multiple subunits, of fibrous nature, linked together by intermolecular disulfide bonds. The reduction of these bonds allows to divide them, by SDS-PAGE, into two groups.
- High molecular weight (HMW) subunits, low in sulfur, that account for about 12% of total gluten proteins. The noncovalent bonds between them are responsible for the elasticity and tenacity of the gluten protein network, that is, of the viscoelastic properties of gluten, and so of the dough.
- Low molecular weight (LMW) subunits, rich in sulfur (cysteine residues).
These proteins form intermolecular disulfide bridges to each other and with HMW subunits, leading to the formation of a glutenin macropolymer.
Glutenins allow dough to hold its shape during mechanical (kneading) and not mechanical stresses (increase in volume due to both the leavening and the heat of cooking that increases the volume occupied by gases present) which is submitted. This property is important in pasta making.
If in excess, glutenins lead to the formation of a strong and rigid dough.
Properties of wheat gluten
From the nutritional point of view, gluten proteins do not have a high biological value, being low in lysine, an essential amino acid. Therefore, a gluten-free diet does not cause any important nutritional deficiencies.
On the other hand, it is of great importance in food industry: the combination, in aqueous solution, of gliadins and glutenins to form a three-dimensional lattice, provides viscoelastic properties, that is, extensibility-viscosity and elasticity-tenacity, to the dough, and then, a good structure to bread, pasta, and in general, to all foods made with wheat flour.
It has a high degree of palatability.
It has a high fermenting power in the small intestine.
It is an exorphin: some peptides produced from intestinal digestion of gluten proteins may have an effect in central nervous system.
The following is a list of gluten-free cereals, minor cereals, and pseudocereals used as foods.
corn or maize (Zea mays)
rice (Oryza sativa)
- Minor cereals
They are defined “minor” not because they have a low nutritional value, but because they are grown in small areas and in lower quantities than wheat, rice and maize.
Fonio (Digitaria exilis)
Millet (Panicum miliaceum)
Panic (Panicum italicum)
Sorghum (Sorghum vulgare)
Teff (Eragrostis tef)
Teosinte; it is a group of four species of the genus Zea. They are plants that grow in Mexico (Sierra Madre), Guatemala and Venezuela.
They are so called because they combine in their botany and nutritional properties characteristics of cereals and legumes, therefore of another plant family.
Amaranth; the most common species are:
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), a pseudocereal with excellent nutritional properties, containing fibers, iron, zinc and magnesium. It belongs to Chenopodiaceae family, such as beets.
- Cassava, also known as tapioca, manioc, or yuca (Manihot useful). It is grown mainly in the south of the Sahara and South America. It is an edible root tuber from which tapioca starch is extracted.
It should be noted that naturally gluten-free foods may not be truly gluten-free after processing. Indeed, the use of derivatives of gliadins in processed foods, or contamination in the production chain may occur, and this is obviously important because even traces of gluten are harmful for celiac patients.
Oats and gluten
Oats (Avena sativa) is among the cereals that celiac patients can eat. Recent studies have shown that it is tolerated by celiac patients, adult and child, even in subjects with dermatitis herpetiformis. Obviously, oats must be certified as gluten-free (from contamination).
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