These days gluten is a very controversial topic. More and more products are labeled as “gluten free”, because some ‘health experts’ claim that gluten can be harmful for most people (not just the ones that actually suffer from celiac disease).
The truth is, more and more people try to avoid gluten, but don’t really know what it is and how it affects the body and therefore their health.
What the heck is gluten?
Gluten is a form of protein in grains. Actually it’s two little proteins, called gliadin and glutenin, packaged together.
However, these kinds of proteins don’t dissolve very well in water. Adding water to wheat grain, it clusters together and forms a sticky mass. That’s why it’s often used in baking.
Basically, the thing that makes the dough stretchy and sticky is gluten. Without it, the ingredients would not bind together in a dough with a good elasticity.
Plus, gluten is also used in cosmetics, hair products and other dermatological preparations.
Which foods contain gluten?
The most common gluten sources are wheat, spelt, rye, barley, bread, pasta, cereals, beer, cakes, cookies and pastries. But since wheat is also added to all kinds of processed food, you have to read nutrition labels if you want to avoid gluten.
Gluten-free grains are for example corn, rice, quinoa, flax, buckwheat, amaranth, oats and tapioca. Be careful with oats. They may be naturally gluten-free, but they can be contaminated by it. Again: Check the nutrition labels!
A “gluten-free” label on the front of the product is never an indicator that a food is more natural, healthy or lower in calories. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
Is gluten bad for you?
While there are some people who have to avoid gluten because of allergic reactions, gluten is definitely not a ‘toxin’ as many gurus try to make you believe.
If you suffer from a wheat allergy, Celiac disease or a gluten/wheat sensitivity you must follow a strict gluten-free diet!
On the other hand, if you don't suffer from any of these sensitivities eating wheat or gluten does not cause damage to your cells nor does it trigger dangerous allergic reactions.
Gluten is just one of many proteins in a mixed diet, neither harmful nor essential to a good health. Hence, for the vast majority of people, avoiding gluten is simply unnecessary.
In other words, if you tolerate gluten, enjoy it! There is no reason to avoid it. Only roughly 10% of the population are actually gluten intolerant, some of them to such a low extent, they don't even notice it.
Just because other people are lactose intolerant, doesn't make you stop eating milk-based products, does it?
Substitutes for gluten
There are a lot of gluten-free flour mixes for baking out there. I tried out a lot of them. You bite into a gluten free cupcake and you know right away that there is no gluten in there. It’s just not the texture you get with gluten and it's not as chewy.
One product you can try for baking is Xanthan gum. It is created from the fermentation of the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris into a sugar solution. Lot of weird words, right?
Xanthan gum is one of the substitutes that behaves most like gluten. It’s elasticity and structure-building capabilities are excellent. For the most baking recipes you just need about 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour.
Another substitute is guar gum, which is made from the guar bean plant. It’s much less elastic than Xanthan gum, but it’s pretty good at binding and structure-building.
However, it’s a little bit like old chewing gum, pretty hard to chew and not very elastic. You can use the same amount of guar gum as with Xantham gum.
Really nice alternatives are combinations of psyllium, chia and flax seeds. Although you have to use a lot of them. They are perfect at binding and at structure building.
You can make breads with the seeds, which rise and bake up, just like wheat loaf.
Keep in mind: baking items using seeds always tastes like the seeds, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And after a day or two the bread crumbles.
If you have an allergic response to gluten, stay away from it and go for the food alternatives outlined above. If your body is fine with gluten, enjoy some and don't feel bad. You won't get fat or sick from it!