The Strange Case of Gluten
(MARCH 29, 2012) Gluten, a protein composite present in wheat and other grains, appears to be a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a friend to bread bakers and a foe to people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Let’s take a closer look at this “strange case.”
First gluten as Dr. Jekyll: The long molecules of gluten (insoluble in water) make for “resilient and stretchy” dough. “If you are making bread, you want gluten in the dough, so that when it’s baking the walls of the little air pockets formed by yeast expand but don’t burst open,” according to a 2009 Harvard Health Letter.
From the same source, we also get a description of gluten as Mr. Hyde: “In the context of celiac disease, gluten refers to the protein of grains capable of provoking an autoimmune response. Other grains also contain protein, but wheat, barley, rye and spelt contain varieties that aren’t broken down by digestive enzymes.” When the proteins are absorbed into the walls of the small intestine of those with celiac disease, the immune system views them as intruders and unleashes an inflammatory response that damages the intestinal villi, which, as a result, “produce fewer digestive enzymes and absorb fewer nutrients.” This damage does not occur in people with either gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy. The treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet for life. Once such diet is started, the body begins to repair the existing damage and further damage is prevented.
Recent research has recognized gluten sensitivity as a distinct condition. Until disease markers are identified, diagnosis is basically made by excluding other causes, like celiac disease (based on the absence of intestinal damage), and by reduction of symptoms following a gluten-free diet.
Wheat is among the top eight food allergens in the United States, the others being milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish and soy. People allergic to wheat usually do not need to avoid other grains, like rye, barley or oats.
As awareness about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity has increased, knowledge about gluten-free options and products tailored to people who need to eliminate gluten from their diet have increased as well. Fruits and vegetables, tree nuts and seeds (e.g., flax, quinoa), fresh fish and eggs are among foods naturally free of gluten and so are rice and corn. While wheat, rye and barley flours are off the menu, flours from gluten-free foods are in: chestnut, chickpea, potato, quinoa, sorghum, tapioca and teff flours, for example.
While they may sound unfamiliar, these are not new flours. Chestnut flour is the main ingredient of castagnaccio, a traditional Tuscan cake with raisins and pine nuts, flavored with rosemary. The kind of large, unleavened pancake called socca in southeastern France and farinatain nearby Liguria (Italy) is made with chickpea flour. And teff flour is used in Eritrea and Ethiopia to make the spongy yeasted flatbread called injera (which doubles as an eating implement).
Gluten-free flours and starches are interesting ingredients not only to people adversely affected by gluten, but also to those like me, who simply want to broaden their gustatory horizons. Both groups were among those attending a recent class on gluten-free baking held at the Eureka Co-op. Instructors Rosa May Dixon and Milia Lando are the owners of Natural Decadence, a local bakery focusing on gluten-free desserts (that are also nut, egg and dairy free).