Grain Fed Chicken: Do Grain Proteins Pass through to Humans from the Meat We Eat?

Grain Fed Chicken: Do Grain Proteins Pass through to Humans from the Meat We Eat?


A reader asks, “If chickens (or other fowl) are fed wheat, does that mean those of us on a gluten free diet shouldn’t eat chicken?”

The short answer to this question is, likely not. However, this is such an interesting discussion and one I see misrepresented often on gluten-free lifestyle and food websites. Let’s gain some clarity on the topic.

First, it is unlikely chickens grown commercially for meat (referred to as “broilers”) eat wheat. But that doesn’t mean our discussion ends here.

The standard diet for birds raised in commercial broiler houses consists of a high protein blend of corn and soybean meal with added vitamins and minerals. No hormones are steroids are allowed.

Even though the standard diet for broilers does not include wheat, for individuals who are unable to eat corn or soy, this is still a viable question.

Typically, when discussing this topic, most individuals jump to human digestion and talk about how our bodies break down the meat or poultry we eat.

We must, however, consider the animal’s digestion. My training in animal husbandry and pre-veterinary medicine, not to mention research science, comes in handy on topics like this one.

We must look at the complete picture when discussing food, health and nutrition.

In this case, we must examine what the chicken is fed, how that food is digested by the fowl and finally, how the human body digests the resulting poultry that we purchase from the supermarket.

I’ve already revealed the standard commercial poultry ration: corn and soybean meal, plus vitamins and minerals to help the birds grow to maturity in about six weeks.

Now, let’s understand what happens to this ration as it is digested by the birds.

Domestic fowl have a unique digestive system that differs from that of humans. The specific organs and their detailed function aren’t necessary to know for us to understand the basics of how the corn/soy (or any other) ration is broken down post-consumption in commercial fowl.

After food is ingested by fowl, it is broken down by saliva, then undergoes a series of chemical and mechanical processes to further reduce it to a form that can be readily absorbed into the bird’s system for nourishment and growth.

These processes involve various organs. Some, like the gizzard, used for mechanical breakdown of food, are unique to birds. Other organs, like the pancreas and small intestine, which release digestive chemicals, are more familiar sounding to us and are similar to those structures in our own bodies.

Ultimately, what is important to understand about the digestion of food in commercially raised chickens is that the complex ration they are fed is reduced to simple building blocks (amino acids) that are able to be absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and into other structures so they can be used by the bird for maintenance of normal bodily function and growth.

{ I’ve seen similar information shared by valid, educational sites like The Savvy Celiac, who references dietitian and celiac specialist, Tricia Thompson of the Gluten Free Watchdog. }

Particles that escape this breakdown and absorption process are not lost. These are acted on by bacteria in a unique structure (called the caeca), then absorbed into the system.

In short, what remains after digestion is nothing like the starter ration of corn/soy meal. Everything ingested is reduced to very basic molecules that are used by the bird’s body to support bodily function. Anything beyond that exits as waste.

So, even if broiler chickens were fed wheat (which they are typically not), the gluten protein would be broken down to individual amino acids (the basic building blocks of proteins), which are very small, short-chain fragments that are no longer gluten.

The resulting poultry we buy in the local grocery store, then, would be gluten-free (barring the addition of any seasonings, sauces or marinades that may possibly contain gluten, of course).

Once that poultry is cooked and consumed by those of us who eat meat, the human digestion process is similar to that described above for poultry, in that the food we eat is broken down into very basic building blocks (amino acids) and absorbed into the blood stream to be used to support body systems and function.

You may also be interested in my article about what science tells us about the gluten protein in eggs.

Gluten Free Gigi

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As someone with celiac disease and multiple food allergies, Gigi understands how food can harm or heal. Fully restoring her own health with diet alone after a 25-year health struggle, Gigi now uses her own experiences and the skills she gained as a former neuroscience researcher to share practical, easy-to-understand strategies, science-backed nutrition information, immediately useful tips and recipes to make gluten-free living liberating and positive for everyone!
  • Linda

    Wow! What a terrific question! And you answer was very understandable. Sometimes you lose me with all the scientific data, but this one was straight forward. Thank you so much! I had thought of this once or twice, but didn’t pay attention to it.

    • Gluten Free Gigi

      Hi, Linda.

      Thanks so much for the feedback.

      I never want to lose anyone, so if my answers are ever unclear or just too “science-y”, please drop me a note.
      I want to make sure everyone gets the answers they need… and I’m not opposed to covering a topic more than once to see that through. :)


  • glutenfreegigi

    Please see this article, What Science Says about Gluten Protein in Eggs – it also addresses soy:

  • glutenfreegigi

    Please see this article, What Science Says about Gluten Protein in Eggs. It also addresses soy: