This may sound like an odd question to some, but it does come up quite often and I have a few thoughts as to why.
In short, yes gluten is 100% vegan as it’s only present in plants. Gluten is just a the term for a group of proteins found in various cereal grains that complex when exposed to moisture. It’s often mistaken for being non-vegan especially by newcomers to the subject of nutrition.
What we’ll do here is cover a couple of reasons why the protein is often mistaken for being a non-vegan ingredient.
Gluten in the Vegan Diet: What Is the Stuff, Anyway?
Proteins perform an important role in the structure of baked food items. The ability of baked goods to rise during the leavening process is directly related to the protein content of the food.1
Omnivores and ovo-vegetarians have eggs at their disposal when baking. Proteins in food (gluten in plants and albumin in egg) contribute to baked goods by firming the flour mixture, as opposed to other ingredients such as sugar and fat which act as tenderizing agents.2
So, since vegans exclude animal products from the diet, lots of foods containing wheat fill the void. For this reason, gluten is ubiquitous in the vegan diet—much of it being in the form of glutenin and gliadin.
Again, gluten is a name for a group of proteins, called glutenins and prolamins that occur in the endosperm of cereal grains.3
The type of protein depends on the grain. The subtypes in wheat are gliadins and glutenins.4,5 I guess all the good names were taken.
Gluten in wheat is great for baking, making it the preferred flour for this reason. It’s said to be both elastic and plastic due to its ability to expand with the inner pressure of air, steam, and CO2. Glutenin lends to the elasticity and gliadin to the fluidity and stickiness.6
Gas from yeast and other leaveners (baking powder, etc.) cause the dough to rise because the air bubbles, being trapped in small pockets of dough, causes the dough to stretch expanding the gluten strands where they solidify when baked resulting in a nice large loaf of bread.
The baked product’s structure gets hard or “sets” when the high heat from the oven gelatinizes the starch and coagulates the proteins.
Not all baked products use gluten. For example, with pastries and cakes, you wouldn’t want gluten formation as it would result in a tough chewy texture. These foods are made by forming more of a batter than a dough—the former has more liquid which is bad for gluten formation.7
Why Gluten is Mistaken for Being Non-Vegan
It’s not that this is necessarily a widespread misconception, but it can be confusing for folks who are new to diet and nutrition.
Vegan Hippy Stereotypes
One similar question is why are vegans always gluten-free? It seems we millennials have made quite the name for ourselves in jumping from one diet bandwagon to the next. Because so many vegans are gluten free, it’s assumed by some that there must be some sort of connection.
So, in essence, the first reason is that the vegan diet tends to get conflated with other diet trends. Obviously, the vegan diet has been around for a long, long time and is much more than a simple “trend.” It’s an entire way of life.
But, let’s face it, we vegans come with our fair share of stereotypes. Vegans are largely known as a bunch of millennial and Gen Z hipsters who adopt one dietary trend after another.
If you’re vegan, people often assume you’re a fair trade, gluten-free, non-GMO, raw only intermittent faster. In fact, I’ve seen a few people promote combining certain diet trends to form new ones like the paleo-vegan or Pegan diet.
Some Vegans Are Gluten Intolerant
Again, gluten refers to proteins or rather peptide fractions of proteins (prolamines). There are glutenin and gliadin in wheat, but also secalin (rye) and hordein (barley).
Well, these peptides tend to be more resistant to digestion by enzymes in the GI tract and thus may reach the SI intact.
This is not a problem for most, because normal, healthy intestines have an intact barrier which prevents “translocation” of the peptides from the intestine.
However, in the gluten intolerant—especially in persons with celiac disease (CD)—the peptides can cause all sorts of trouble as they travel from the intestinal lumen, across the epithelium, into the lamina propria (a thin layer of connective tissue), where they begin to trigger an inflammatory response that causes structural changes to the intestines over time.8
Underestimated in the past, the prevalence of CD is now thought to affect at least 1 in 141 people in the US and varies by race and ethnicity, being most common among non-Hispanic whites.9
You can be gluten intolerant without CD. Gluten intolerance simply means that you get a lot of the same symptoms of CD (nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea) after ingesting gluten, but may or may not have the disease.10
Then, there’s regular old gluten sensitivity which is an issue for a lot of people. It’s marked by nonspecific symptoms, and lacks the immune response and resulting GI damage characteristic of CD.10
It was mentioned above that when animal products leave the diet, a lot of grain-based products take their place, wheat being one of them.
Wheat flour happens to have the highest concentration of proteins that form gluten which accounts for why it yields baked products that have a light, airy textures.2
Anyway, this is a huge issue for vegans who are truly gluten intolerant. After all, you’re already on a very restrictive diet as you’ve eliminated so many food groups to eat vegan. As vegans, the last thing we want to have to contend with is eliminating another large category of food, especially one that we partly rely on for protein.
Luckily there are many products on the market that are both gluten-free and vegan. These products often rely on guar and xanthan gum (the latter of which may not be vegan), as these compounds share some of the same properties with gluten. You can check out the article on the vegan status of guar gum here.
Also, wheat is only one of many plant-based sources of protein. For more on this, you can check out the article I wrote on the best vegan sources of protein.
- Autio K, T Parkkonen, and M Fabritius. Observing structural differences in wheat and rye breads. Cereal Foods World 42(8):702–705, 1997.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 368). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Food and Drug Administration (January 2007). “Food Labeling ; Gluten-Free Labeling of Foods” (PDF)
- Biesiekierski JR (2017). “What is gluten?”. J Gastroenterol Hepatol (Review). 32 Suppl 1: 78–81. doi:10.1111/jgh.13703. PMID 28244676
- Payne, P. I. (2012-12-06). “Endosperm Proteins”. In Blonstein, A. D.; King, P. J. (eds.). A Genetic Approach to Plant Biochemistry. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 210. ISBN 9783709169896.
- Aamodt A, et al. Dough and hearth bread characteristics infl uenced by protein composition, protein content, DATEM, and their interactions. Journal of Food Science 70(3): C214–C221, 2005.
- Gallagher E. Formulation and nutritional aspects of gluten-free cereal products and infant foods. In EK Arendt and F Dal Bello. Gluten-free Cereal Products and Beverages, 2008.
- Sams A, Hawks J: Celiac disease as a model for the evolution of multifactorial disease in humans, Hum Biol 86:19, 2014.
- Rubio-Tapia A, Ludvigsson JF, Brantner TL, et al: The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States, Am J Gastroenterol 107:1538, 2012.
- Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process (Page 533). L. Mahan-Janice Raymond – Elsevier – 2017