Getting to Know Gluten

It is something that an increasing number of Americans are avoiding like the plague. Relatively speaking, it has just burst onto the nutrition and health scene, transcending its nerdy nutrition textbook roots to become part of the American lexicon. Now almost everyone knows what it is, and many have an even deeper and more personal relationship with it than just a passing acquaintance. It’s like that best friend you used to have, with whom you had many great experiences and memories, but eventually things went south and you realized it was simply best to part ways. It has spurned an entire new diet revolution, has changed food labeling and restaurant dining forever, and has even forced doctors to take a more nutrition-related approach to many symptoms and pathologies. Not bad for a microscopic, seemingly innocuous, organic molecule.

Gluten has changed the world. If that is an overstatement, it is only a slight one. Today, most Americans know what gluten is, know where it’s found, and know how to avoid it if they so choose. But let’s take a closer look at gluten, especially if we are going to vilify it, blame it for many of our problems, and attempt to completely ostracize it from our life. If we’re going to be gluten-free, we may as well at least know what it was that was enslaving us in the first place.

Gluten is a composite protein, meaning that it is actually a mix of other proteins. It is primarily found in wheat, barley, and rye, although it is also found in related plant species such as durum, semolina, spelt, and farro. Predominantly though, if you are looking to blacklist gluten from your life, the major perpetrators to avoid are wheat, rye, and barley. And although rye and barley are part of the American diet, wheat is the major and most ubiquitous source of gluten. To its credit, gluten is a pretty incredible molecule, and one that is difficult to replace, a fact to which gluten-free dieters can attest. Gluten helps make bread dough elastic, keep its shape, and gives it a distinct chewy texture that is at least very difficult, if not impossible to replicate with other molecules. The more gluten a baked product has, the chewier and more textured it will be. Examples of high gluten baked goods include foods like pizza and bagels, whereas something like a cake with its finer, more delicate texture would contain less gluten.

Gluten is also a very versatile molecule, having a place in other products besides baked goods or pastas as well. Beer is a common source of gluten, but beer-aholics need not fear because many brands of gluten-free beer are now widely available. Another common source of gluten, but one you may not typically think of, is soy sauce. Gluten also has stabilizing and thickening properties, which is why it is also commonly found in sauces, salad dressings, marinades, and gravies, and even in foods like ketchup and ice cream. Additionally, being that gluten enhances and takes on flavor well, is a good source of protein, and has a robust texture, it is often used in imitation meat products. It may seem then that gluten, the crafty and formidable enemy, has found a way to infiltrate almost every corner of our diet and food supply. Even many foods that don’t contain gluten naturally are processed on shared equipment that leads to cross contamination. But have increasingly less fear, because more and more certified gluten-free products are hitting the shelves, companies are going to great lengths to guard against cross-contamination, and food technology and ingenuity are advancing to the point where delicious gluten-free alternatives to almost any food are widely available.

So that’s gluten, the man behind the myth, if you will. An organic protein compound, found primarily in wheat and related species. Known for its unique ability to add one-of-a-kind texture and chewiness, usually to baked goods, it is easy to see why gluten is so widely consumed when you consider American’s love of pastas, pastries, and bread. We’re talking major staple food items here, products that are synonymous with the American diet and culture. It is easy to see then why going gluten-free is no easy task, both from a practical and knowledge standpoint. But hopefully you now have a little better idea of what you’re avoiding, why it’s so common in the first place, and what foods and ingredients to look out for if gluten is in fact your enemy. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu said, “If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” Getting to know yourself is certainly a life-long challenge, but if gluten is your enemy, you now at least have a better understanding of that half of the equation. That said, good luck avoiding gluten and continued good luck in getting to know yourself.

Article Courtesy:  Andrew Steingrube

2 thoughts on “Getting to Know Gluten

  1. Just want to clarify that this is supposed to say spelt, not smelt, is that correct?

    Gluten is a composite protein, meaning that it is actually a mix of other proteins. It is primarily found in wheat, barley, and rye, although it is also found in related plant species such as durum, semolina, smelt, and farro.

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