Gluten? Guten tag? Gesundheit?
What’s this gluten stuff that I’ve been hearing so much about lately?
We’ve all seen the “Gluten Free!” promulgation. It’s announced in bold print on packages of potato chips, corn tortillas, and rice cakes, it’s displayed on restaurant menus and, most recently, at typically gluten heavy pizza shops and bakeries. There are grocery and health food store aisles devoted to it. There are people who live by it. But what is it? What is gluten?
What you probably know is that it’s something in certain foods that some people are sensitive to or intolerant of. You may have an acquaintance, a friend, or family member who has severe Celiac disease and can only eat at gluten-free establishments where the risk of gluten contamination is nil. Whatever the case may be, it’s apparent that not everyone can eat gluten without risking known consequences at any given meal: headaches, fatigue, abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. For these folks, this elastic and plastic protein composite found in wheat and similar crops antagonizes their guts.
By definition, gluten is the composite of two proteins, glutelin and gliadin, attached to starch in the endosperm of wheat and related grains. If you’re up for a quick experiment, combine 1 cup high gluten flour (bread flour) and 1/2-3/4 cup water in a bowl and knead, a process which encourages the glutelin and gliadin to form gluten. Carefully rinse the ball of dough under running water — the water-soluble starch will gradually wash away in a stream of milky water, leaving you with a ball of rubbery, water-insoluble gluten. Vegans and vegetarians may recognize it as seitan.
Gluten is essential to baking and irreplaceable by any one ingredient. The air pockets in a loaf of fluffy bread depend on the strength and flexibility that the protein provides. While bread bakers praise gluten for providing elasticity and structure to their dough, pastry chefs fight it — over-kneaded pastry dough makes for a tough, chewy, and dense crust rather than a soft, flaky one. And yet, despite the nuisance that is gluten, it’s still desirable — for without it, our crust would crumble like a tower without pillars. If you’ve ever tasted gluten free bread, you know: you know after just one bite how unique gluten truly is.
Whether doctors are simply more aware of gluten intolerance — and are therefore diagnosing it more frequently — or the human population is, alternatively, becoming more susceptible to it, it’s undeniable that the prevalence of gluten intolerance and gluten free diets has risen dramatically over the course of our lifetimes. What was once nearly unheard of has become overheard and often misunderstood. Gluten-free is not synonymous with “healthy” — many of the world’s least nutritious products made solely from starches such as potato, corn, and rice have always been and always will be gluten free. Fat is gluten free. Sugar is gluten free. The only things that aren’t gluten free are those that include wheat or wheat-related grains. The greatness of gluten is a matter of perspective: bread loves it, pies hate it; toast-intolerants toss it, bread eaters ate it.