GUEST BLOGGER COLUMN, ASK A FOOD SCIENTIST: “WHAT IS GLUTEN?”
What is gluten exactly? In this article, we’re going to clear up some of the misconceptions and fears about this mysterious term that has gained so much popularity recently.
Gluten is a complex protein that creates the structure of most of the breads/pastas we eat. If you’ve ever made bread, you’ve seen gluten in action. The pictures below show a simplified version of what happens when you knead dough – you are forcing the two main components of gluten together to form a gluten matrix that forms the structure of bread and other food systems. See the stringy fibers in the dough in the second picture? That is a developed gluten matrix!
The next question most often asked about gluten is: Is it dangerous? That depends on whether you have certain medical conditions. To the normal person, there is absolutely no danger to eating gluten and little benefit to going gluten-free. Most people who chose to go gluten-free do so for weight loss purposes because eliminating gluten eliminates a lot of complex carbs (pasta, bread, etc.) from your diet, which can help you lose weight. However, some people have gluten intolerance or a more severe condition called Celiac’s Disease. People with Celiac’s or gluten intolerance can have a reaction to any or all components of gluten (gliadin, glutenin, and gluten) which can cause intestinal swelling, diarrhea, vomiting, or constipation.
There are some foods you may know contain gluten and some foods you might not think about even checking. The three main contributors of gluten to foods are wheat, rye, and barley. Foods that definitely contain gluten (unless stated otherwise): bread, pasta, beer, noodles, pastries, crackers, baked goods, cereal and granola, pancakes, croutons, tortillas, and any malt alcohol. Some foods you might not realize have gluten: Doritos (my one friend always forgot this and would be totally swollen the next day), breadcrumbs (made of bread, but you may not think of this as you eat something coated in them), sauces/gravies/soup (some soup, sauces and gravies use flour as a thickener – always ask!), processed lunch meats and meat substitutes can sometimes use plant ingredients for texture, some cheesecakes can use flour – again always ask before eating – and anything with seasoning on it can have trace amounts (there is a starch that is used to help hold the seasoning to the chip/meat/etc.).
Some key words to look for on labels to avoid gluten: rye, barley, wheat, malt vinegar, flour, soy sauce, and maltodextrin. Now, a product can still have traces of gluten in it and be called gluten free, so if you are really sensitive to gluten it is best to avoid ANYTHING that has been listed above on the ingredients statement in any quantity. Trace amounts are allowed because it can be difficult to completely remove all the gluten from a product and in most individuals, these trace amounts will not cause any reactions.
I hope this post clears up some fears you might have! If you have any questions about something covered/not covered here please submit them here or to my personal tumblr and I can answer them there!
Sources: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0740002006001535; http://grist.org/food/2011-11-10-gluten-why-all-the-fuss/; http://celiac.org/
Amanda is a food scientist currently working in product development. She’s excited to teach No More Ramen’s readers about the building blocks of food. Click here to read all of Amanda’s posts for No More Ramen!