I keep hearing about gluten free this and gluten free that. And when I saw it mentioned in a newspaper comic, I decided to find out what gluten is all about.
What is gluten?
Gluten comes from grains in the subfamily Triticeae, like wheat, rye and barley. In these grains, two proteins that sound like elves from Lord of the Rings, glutenin and gliadin, form the matrix that is gluten when flour is mixed with water to make dough. In grain seeds, glutenin and gliadin form most of the endosperm, which helps the growing grain embryo get big and strong.
What are its properties?
In baking, the big, loosely coiled molecule of glutenin gives dough strength and elasticity, while the smaller, tightly coiled spherical molecule of gliadin allows the dough to stretch, allowing bread to form bubbles around the carbon dioxide the yeast in bread gives off. Wheat flour comes with different proportions of the proteins to offer different properties. Flour for making finer pastries has less gluten. Gluten is also used in all kinds of products, such as a thickener in ketchup and in medications and fake meat in vegetarian Chinese cuisine.
So, what's the problem?
For people with celiac disease, a gluten free diet is not a matter of choice. They can’t eat gluten or else their immune system reacts with inflammation, which can lead to problems with the lining of their small intestines and reduce the absorption of various nutrients. Celiac disease is one of the most common chronic diseases in the world. In North America, this might be 1 in every 100–200 people. Another 6% have gluten sensitivity—they react to gluten but without intestinal damage. Having the genes doesn’t necessarily mean problems will develop, so the reaction has to be tested directly. Many go undiagnosed.
The incidence of gluten problems seems to be growing. This may have to do with increased awareness. But some people blame changes to properties of wheat, though the amount of gluten has not changed. Some even blame GMOs, even though GM wheat is not commercially available. Gluten free choices have also been growing lately and this is good for those who cannot digest it. But some of these products never had gluten to start off with, so it seems to be partly a marketing ploy. Some celebrities have been raving about the virtues of a gluten free diet, making people think going gluten free is a healthier choice for everyone (with a personal chef).
Some people lose weight by going gluten free, probably more because this includes cutting out many kinds of junk food that happen to contain gluten. No evidence for benefits of a gluten free diet has been shown for folks able to digest gluten. Mind you, this comes from a prof with ties to the grain industry. Still, going gluten free without medical advice might be a throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater kind of strategy. Gluten occurs in processed food with excessive sugar, fat, and salt, but also whole grain foods with important nutritional benefits.
So unless you have a medical condition, avoiding gluten does not seem to make sense. But don't believe me—I'm a have-my-cake-and-eat-the-gluten-too sort of person. If you think you might have problems with gluten, see your doctor before going gluten free, so you can be tested under controlled conditions.