One subject I’m asked about most often, aside from Organics, is transitioning away from gluten. With advances in food production, consumer awareness and medical treatments, those who are gluten-sensitive have more options than ever. While it’s a wonderful improvement, it creates questions for those who see the products appearing on shelves. First, before any facts are doled out, please consult your physician before changing or adopting any dietary changes. Do not assume you are gluten intolerant. Not everyone is gluten-sensitive, and there is testing for such allergies to make sure removing gluten is the best option for you.
The science of gluten is amazing. Gluten is a protein component of wheat, and it’s the building block of wheat-based foods. Gluten translates to “glue” in Latin. The starch component of it creates elasticity and chew, creating the structure in baked goods. Imagine gluten molecules as a type of fish net over a ball of bread dough. As it’s kneaded, that net keeps the dough together, forming a wall around it to keep the carbon dioxide escaping from the yeast inside trapped, creating those lovely hollows inside. Without gluten development, bread would be flat, tough and heavy. Gluten is also added to some foods as a source of protein, therefore, reading labels is paramount in finding it where it may not be anticipated.
Some people have sensitivities when gluten is consumed, and these are commonly known as gluten-related disorders. There are many reasons why so many are now showing signs of sensitivities, including the westernization of diet, increased consumption of wheat-based food worldwide and higher gluten content in some baked goods on the market. Celiac disease, which affects 1-2% of the general population, is one type, as is NCGS (non-celiac gluten sensitivity) and wheat allergies. A trip to the doctor will help verify any condition you may have, and advise you on what path to take if necessary.
The USDA has included wheat on the allergy line on nutrition labels, located directly under the ingredient list. The term “gluten-free” is voluntary on food labels in the United States. It means that the gluten content must be below 20 parts per million (that’s .002%). For some with sensitivities, this is still unsafe, though many can tolerate such low levels. For many years, those with sensitivities had to avoid many types of foods that are now produced with alternate ingredients, allowing them, for the first time in years, to enjoy items like bread and cake.
The transformation of commonly wheat-based product into gluten-free product is done largely with nut and soy alternatives. Almond, coconut, cashew and soy flours are now available, and while there’s no gluten in them for structure, many recipes can replace all or some of the wheat flour with these alternates. There’s also different texture and flavor components when using them, which may lead to a better-tasting final product. I use almond flour for pancakes not because of allergy, but because of taste and nutrition. Rice is also substituted for wheat when gluten is an issue. Because gluten is also found in oat, spelt, barley and rye, rice is often chosen as a side dish, dessert component or flour base. Perusing the gluten-free aisle or natural food store in your town will help you find these ingredients, but be prepared to pay a bit more than you would for standard all-purpose flour.
For those without sensitivities, these items are a curious addition to grocery shelves. I do own a few alternatives, both for those with issues and for my personal use. I have no allergies to speak of, have visited my doctor to confirm that, and have been eating a whole-grain diet for years now. For those without sensitivities, whole-grain tends to be a healthier diet that encourages slower digestion, higher fiber content and decreased insulin resistance. Those with celiac or related illnesses choose flours that tend to digest easier in order to maintain small intestinal health. For those who choose all-purpose, bleached and processed wheat products, gluten-free options are higher in fiber and protein, but for those following a whole-grain diet, this may not be the case. Check the labels of the products you buy most.
Many are curious how gluten-free options taste. I’m asked, “If I make ___ with soy instead of wheat, what will it taste like?” or “Does coconut flour make everything taste like coconut?” For the first, I’ll say that the texture difference is the most noticeable. Soy is in nearly everything we eat, and its flavor is neutral when it’s processed into flour; but making bread or baked goods with soy will be a stark change, in that they will be less chewy, denser and potentially drier. As for coconut, it does have a little ting of the tropics left in it, but it’s milder than flake coconut would be. There’s very little structure in coconut flour, so I only recommend using it for batters, breading and smoothies unless it’s a dietary requirement.
For those wanting to potentially incorporate more gluten-free options, monitor your fiber, protein and nutrient intake. Some of my clients enjoy trying a recipe using the product before buying its components. Ounce for ounce, you’ll spend 3-5 times more on gluten-free items versus their wheat-based neighbors, so trying a restaurant dish or sampling a small, purchased item first is a great idea. For those who may keep Kosher, you’re familiar with avoiding wheat during religious events like Passover. Matzo is their substitute, since barley, oats and related grains are off-limits. If you’re looking to ease away from whole grains, check food labels and look for “wheat” in the allergens line. Another good plan is to talk to someone with Celiac, as they’ve become an impromptu expert in the field.
As always, I’m happy to answer your questions about gluten sensitivities and options. Keep your total diet in mind when you try new products, and remember to consult a physician if you’re having gluten issues or if you want to be tested. Enjoy the links below, and see you again soon!
Jill Marie is a classically-trained French chef, certified by Le Cordon Bleu and possessing both a Grand Diplôme in culinary arts and Pastry Certification. She’s been cooking professionally in hotel,restaurant and catering kitchens for fifteen years, and specializes in comfortable, everyday food. She also earned a Master’s degree in HumanResources and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance. In additionto running Delivery Dinners of Delaware, she works full-time in Human Resources. Jill is also a published author of women’s fiction/romance, and her current series, Second Saga, is in print. Visit her site jillmariedenton.com for book info and writing samples.