What Is Gluten Free?

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iStockphoto.com/Karen Sarraga
Found in wheat and its close relatives, gluten is made up of glutenin and gliadin (in wheat), secalin (in rye) and hordein (in barley).

These days, the phrase “gluten free” seems to be everywhere. I feel like half of my friends stopped eating gluten overnight. We added a gluten-free option at group potlucks, I tried my first rice cracker, and I watched as people who had been fighting health issues started raving about how good they felt. Grocery stores (even in our not-so-metropolitan Kansas town) now have gluten-free aisles. But what is gluten, and why does everyone suddenly want to be free of it?

Gluten is actually an important protein complex in bread and other foods. The Chinese call it “the muscle of flour.” Found in wheat and its close relatives, gluten is made up of glutenin and gliadin (in wheat), secalin (in rye) and hordein (in barley). It doesn’t dissolve in water, and comes from the endosperm – the starchy part of the seed that provides nutrition for the developing plant.

Gluten plays a celebrated role in bread making. A “gluten network” gives bread its structure and makes the dough elastic enough to rise. Many of the steps in bread making are about creating this network.

Food expert Alton Brown compares the structure of proteins to old-fashioned coiled phone cords. At the beginning of bread making, a gluten molecule is much like a phone cord that’s been well-used. It’s twisted back on itself, and you’re having trouble getting it to stretch at all. Weak bonds have even formed between different areas of the coils to keep it in a folded mass. One way to untangle these phone cords is to add water; this starts the process and allows the cords to unfold.

Imagine that the ends of these no-longer-tangled phone cords can attach to one another to form long chains. The stretching and folding of kneading allows these now-linear phone cords to align and join together. Once they are side by side, parts of the coils can then connect with each other. You have now created a kind of mesh structure made with chains of coiled gluten proteins in the dough. During the rising phase, yeast adds carbon dioxide bubbles to the dough, which also assists in the lining up and stretching out of the gluten strands. When you put your bubble-filled gluten mesh into the oven, the heat solidifies the gluten and starch, and the structure of bread is formed.

Gluten is also what makes gravy thick and pasta able to soak up sauce. It’s used in some meat substitutes (like seitan), primarily because of its texture and absorbent qualities. These qualities also make it a good culprit for being added to foods that need structure or absorbency – like popsicles and ice cream.

For most of us, gluten is nothing but a regular part of our diet. However, a growing number of people’s bodies see gluten as an enemy invader and react accordingly. A genetic, autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease afflicts about one in 133 Americans (or around 3 million people), and an additional 17 million are “gluten-sensitive.” In autoimmune disorders, your immune system malfunctions (or functions too well). In this case, a gluten protein triggers the immune system, creating havoc in the small intestine. Once rarely considered, these life-changing diagnoses have become more common as information and testing have become more available.

The treatment for both of these disorders involves removing gluten from your diet. This is not easy, because gluten is found in many common foods. As the number of people avoiding gluten has increased, a world of gluten-free foods have hit the shelves.