The Down Side of Gluten

It’s true I do cast a somewhat jaundiced eye at claims of gluten sensitivity, since just about every other child I meet is on a wheat or gluten-free diet as a result of some vague symptom. Of course for some people the symptoms are not so vague. Celiac disease, something akin to an allergy to the protein gliadin, does cause quite a bit of misery among those unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with it. The good news is that for them and others who genuinely can’t stomach wheat, there are a growing number of non-wheat and gluten-free bread alternatives.

Yet for reasons that should be obvious based on what I’ve posted so far this week, making good bread without gluten in no easy task. For gluten truly is what makes bread possible. Without it’s gas-trapping abilities, CO2 and steam that would otherwise push a loaf of bread upward merely escape through holes in the crust. Hence other measures must be taken to keep the gasses in, often the gooey substance xanthan gum, which does perform in a way similar to gluten.

Yet a strong rise isn’t the only challenge with gluten-free breads. Moisture retention is a big problem, since many of the grains that are commonly used to make gluten-free products (i.e. rice, millet and corn) are greedy for moisture themselves. Gluten-free bakers get around the problem by employing a variety of hydrocolloids (water-based gels and sols made from things like agar) that hold onto water, keeping the grain flour from soaking it up and creating a crumbly loaf.

Here I should point out that wheat-free is not the same thing as gluten-free. As I mentioned previously, there are quite a few grains out there that are not wheat yet do contain gliadin. Among them are close wheat relatives like spelt and kamut, as well as rye, barley and oats. Amaranth and quinoa do contain gliadin, though in miniscule quantities not thought to aggravate Celiac sufferers. Grains that are 100% gliadin-free include rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, sorghum and teff. Interestingly, most of these grains do contain gluten, just not the specific gluten-making protein that can upset the digestive tract. Hence “gluten sensitivity” is something of a misnomer. Gliadin sensitivity is really what we’re talking about.

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