When vegetarian Buddhist monks extracted gluten from wheat dough in the 7th century, they knew they had discovered a substitute for meat. It was chewy, gluey and had texture.

Today, signs for gluten-free foods are everywhere, making it seem as if it is a toxic substance. Is gluten bad for us like saturated fats? Should we all be buying food that is gluten-free? What is gluten and how does it affect health?

Gluten, what do you know? T or F?

1. Gluten is a protein.

2. Gluten is found in fresh poultry.

3. Most people should avoid gluten.

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye and, therefore, flour. It is a different protein from that found in rice or meat. We human beings did not include wheat and grains in our diets until relatively recently in our history. Historians estimate that wheat was first cultivated in Egypt about the Neolithic period 9500 BCE. Prior, we ate meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

It seems that our guts have not yet fully adapted to wheat or to gluten.

Gluten, Latin for glue. Literally, we are eating glue. Sort of. In our kitchens gluten is extracted when we aggressively beat or stir foods like mashed potatoes and pancake batter, making them thick and gooey (and tough!). Gluten is everywhere in our diet from natural grains to processed foods. It is added for texture in imitation meats such as fake duck, crab and beef. There is gluten in beer, too. The good news is that gluten-free beer is available.

About 1 in 141 of us are allergic to gluten. The allergic reaction inflames and damages the lining of the small intestine, which can impair absorption of nutrients. The most common symptoms of gluten sensitivity are abdominal bloating or pain, diarrhea, headache, skin rashes and fatigue. Some are mildly gluten-sensitive and some have celiac disease, characterized by severe sensitivity to gluten.

Celiac disease affects about 1 percent of Americans. Celiac is managed with gluten-free diet and medications but it is not curable. A gluten-free diet can significantly control and sometimes completely eliminate symptoms. It is diagnosed by blood tests and endoscopy.

There are sections in most large grocery stores with gluten-free foods and menu items featuring the same. This may lead one to think that gluten is detrimental to our health, like saturated fats and simple sugars. It is not. Rather, it is very misunderstood. Gluten is safe and does not affect health unless one is allergic to it. For the millions who suffer from the effects of gluten intolerance, food alternatives are a blessing. For the rest of us, eating gluten-free is not necessary. If one does not have gluten-intolerance or celiac disease avoidance of gluten offers no healthful advantage.

There are some who believe that a gluten-free diet promotes weight loss. There is no evidence to support this. However, if one cuts back on total calories, including from flour-based foods such as breads, pastas and cakes, weight loss will likely ensue.

There are so many dietary options today which improve the lives of those with food allergies. The emergence of gluten-free options at the grocery store and on restaurant menus means these products are in demand and good for business. That is great news for those who need them. For the rest of us, eat up.

Answers: 1. T; 2. F; 3. F.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted at lori.boyajian-oneill@hcahealthcare.com.