Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Is This Gluten Stuff?

Gluten is the trouble-making ingredient you're supposed to avoid when going on a gluten free diet. But how do you avoid something if you aren't sure what it is or where to find it? I'll admit, this can be a challenge. It's just not as obvious I'd like it to be, but once you learn how to spot it you'll feel more confident about grocery shopping. Also, knowing what gluten is and how it works in food can help you understand how to cook with gluten free ingredients.

What Is This Gluten Stuff?

Gluten is the stretchy gluey stuff that helps bread, pizza crust, and other baked goods get nice puffy air pockets. It creates a flexible structure that helps each baked good hang together without necessarily being tough or chewy. When a baker knows how to properly activate the gluten protein, it will start doing its thing. The presence of gluten has influenced baking techniques for decades, even centuries. Sorry, I'm not trying to build up gluten as some kind of magical essence that turns good food into great food. It's just one of many ingredients with useful properties out there in the world. It happens that wheat is commonly grown and used across the world, and it affects a lot of food in Western cultures.

Ready for a little science? Gluten is made up of two types of proteins - one is the gliadins, the other is the glutenins. In the digestive tract, these proteins each break down further into different peptides. These peptides are made of strings of amino acids, somewhat like a string of pearls. It's the make-up of some of these peptides that causes trouble for people with celiac disease. The gliadin variety of gluten proteins is the most damaging, but some research has shown adverse reactions to the glutenin proteins as well. OK, enough of the technical talk for now.

Where Does Gluten Lurk In My Food?

Up to this point, you have probably been picturing a wheat stalk as your eternal foe, your Kryptonite. Ah, but don't lull yourself into thinking that "wheat free" is synonymous with "gluten free". Wheat may be the most obvious grain to avoid, but gluten is also present in rye and barley. I can't honestly think of many products containing rye that wouldn't also have wheat in them (like cereal or bread). While you clearly have to look out for it, rye should be much easier to avoid than wheat.

Caramel coloring and malt flavoring are made from barley. Barley hops also have gluten in them, so all regular beer makes the "not safe" list. There are a few brands that are specifically labeled "gluten free" because they are brewed with completely different grains (and no barley whatsoever). Some beer companies have stated that "low barley beer" is safe for celiacs, but that seems like an unnecessary risk. Even if you have a mild sensitivity to gluten, you are still sensitive and a gluten free beer is the only safe option.

OK, so no pasta, no bread, no pizza, no regular beer, no cakes or cookies made with any sort of wheat-based flour? I wish I could say it was that easy. Through the miracles of modern food manufacturing, gluten-containing grains have been transformed in numerous widely used ingredients in all sorts of processed foods. Would you like a little malt flavoring (barley) in your cereal? How about a thickening agent (wheat flour) in your prepackaged chicken broth? What about that wheat-brewed soy sauce? And chip flavorings, and Play-Doh (not even a food!), and Twizzlers, and in your mixed nuts, in some processed meats, in your cosmetics, as a filler in some medications, toothpaste, and certain pasta sauces. The list of unbelievable hiding places goes on and on. Label-reading needs to become one of your earliest gluten free habits.