Is Gluten Alone the Bad Guy? Surprising Finds About Wheat Proteins and Health

Wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, which can lead to numerous health difficulties. However, scientists at Columbia University have discovered that non-gluten proteins found in these foods, especially wheat, could also cause immune reactions that may be dangerous to one’s well-being. This suggests that people suffering from celiac, a severe immune system reaction to gluten, might be reacting to other substances as well. Though more research is necessary to understand how the body processes these proteins, understanding this can help determine the cause of celiac and develop potential treatments.

Gluten and the Immune System

Gluten is responsible for approximately 75% of all proteins in wheat. The human body cannot use any of this protein. Although most people without celiac can tolerate gluten, they cannot digest it. Essentially, gluten holds no nutritional value for the majority of individuals, passing through the digestive tract without causing any changes.

However, those with celiac often experience stomach pain, anemia, and diarrhea when exposed to gluten. Moreover, it can lead to neurological issues. The Columbia University researchers discovered that many people with celiac who have dermatitis herpetiformis—an immune response rash linked to celiac—suffer from reactions to five groups of non-gluten wheat proteins. This means that even if gluten were removed from the wheat, these individuals would still experience health problems.

Identifying Immune Reactions

According to the researchers, “(people with celiac) exhibited significantly higher levels of antibody reactivity to non-gluten proteins (than people without celiac). The main immunoreactive non-gluten antibody target proteins were identified as serpins, purinins, α-amylase/protease inhibitors, globulins, and farinins.”

With this information, it’s important to understand what happens when the immune system reacts to gluten and similar proteins. The body mistakes gluten for an invading foreign substance and produces an immune response to attack it. For people with celiac, this leads to inflammation and damage to the small intestine, which impairs nutrient absorption and causes a range of symptoms. The fact that non-gluten proteins in wheat were found to elicit a similar response highlights the potential for these other proteins to contribute to or cause health difficulties as well.

What Comes Next?

Studying these non-gluten proteins can offer a broader understanding of how our immune system reacts to certain foods. Learning more about what causes celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can help develop new diagnostic tests and better treatment options for individuals dealing with these conditions.

More comprehensive testing for non-gluten proteins can help determine which individuals may experience adverse reactions to these proteins. This may provide new insights into the causes of other mysterious autoimmune conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which are believed to have a genetic component.

Creating substitutes for those proteins in products, whether through genetic manipulation or selecting specific strains of wheat with a lesser concentration of the problematic proteins, may produce gluten-free products that are safe for a broader range of people to consume.


While gluten has long been known to cause health issues for many individuals, we must now consider the possibility that other proteins in wheat, barley, and rye may be just as harmful for some people. By expanding our knowledge about these proteins and how they interact with the human body, we can potentially identify new strategies for managing celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions. It may also help create safer, more accessible food options for those living with celiac or other autoimmune disorders.