In which foods is gluten found? And why does it cause food intolerances such as celiac disease?


What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein complex found in some cereals: wheat, spelt, barley, rye, oats and kamut. These are foods that underpin the diet of millions of people and central to the Mediterranean diet. Gluten, a combination of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, is a key nutritional factor.

Generally, its consumption does not pose problems for most people, but in some cases, gluten is responsible for food intolerance or celiac disease. In such cases, specific tests must be carried out for diagnosis and a gluten-free (orglutinated) diet must be followed, i.e. without foods containing gluten.


Gluten and Celiac Disease

The part of the cereals that causes the adverse reaction in celiac disease is gliadin or prolamin. It is, in fact, a protein fraction contained in the part of the cereal constituted by nutritive factors.

In essence, gliadin nourishes the seed and allows it to grow. In celiac disease gluten has a toxic effect on the metabolism. It produces, in fact, an autoimmune reaction – whose mechanisms are not yet completely clear – that triggers an inflammatory state of intestinal villi, structures of intestinal walls intended for the absorption of nutrients, to be transformed into energy for the body. The gluten transformations that take place in the metabolic apparatus by digestive enzymes determine real “immune bombs” that damage the villi and affect the functionality of the intestine, causing symptoms that can be serious for the person.


Symptoms of Celiac Disease

The inflammatory effects of gluten on the intestinal tract lead to symptoms of different severity:

  • Diarrhea with whitish stools
  • Abdominal pains
  • Spasms
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Meteorism
  • Ulcerations in the mouth


The most serious consequence of celiac disease is poor absorption (malabsorption) of nutrients (including minerals and vitamins) introduced into the diet, which can lead to developmental delays for children or excessive weight loss. Adults may suffer from anemia due to poor iron absorption and frequent diarrhea. Malabsorption of calcium and vitamin D can cause osteopenia (decrease in bone density) or osteoporosis (weakening of bones).


Celiac disease involves an increased risk of adenocarcinoma of the small intestine, a tumor of the intestinal tract.

Symptoms of celiac disease are similar to those of other bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, so different chronic conditions can be confusing.

In some cases, celiac disease can be asymptomatic, i.e. without symptoms and disorders that are obvious to the patient. It is therefore necessary to proceed with an accurate diagnosis, which can be conducted by various methods.