What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in a number of grains such as wheat, triticale, barley, rye and oats.  As an ingredient, the two sub-proteins —glutenin and gliadin—form strands which strengthen dough and create pockets which trap the air released from leavening agents, such as yeast.  North American wheat has a higher gluten content than European wheat giving North American baked goods a distinct texture.

Does gluten have a taste?
On its own, gluten has as a chalky flavor, similar to corn starch and a stringy mouthfeel, like a very weak bubble gum. 

How do you identify that a food product has gluten in it?

  1. Read the ingredient statement on the label.  Food allergen and gluten disclosure laws in the USA, Canada, the EU, and various other countries must disclose the presence of the protein gluten and/or the source of gluten protein in the ingredient statement on the label of a processed food. 
  2. Not all food purchases are individually wrapped and labeled so consumers wishing to avoid gluten must familiarize themselves with the sources of gluten, by visiting reputable information resources, such as those provided by celiac-dedicated associations and federal governments.
  3. Consumers should ask restaurant servers if the food they wish to order contains a gluten-containing ingredient, or not.  If in doubt, do not order or consume the food.

If a product isn’t labeled, what are some other ways to determine if it has gluten in it?
Gluten does not have a particular look, color or appearance.  It’s up to consumers to be aware of the sources of gluten and the types of foods in which they are typically found.  For example, gravy is typically thickened with wheat flour.  Rather than hoping the gravy was prepared with corn starch, and in the absence of being able to confirm the gravy ingredients with the cook or chef, one should avoid the gravy.

Which people benefit most from a gluten-free diet?
People with celiac disease, a clinically-diagnosed condition, have a cell-mediated allergy to gluten that results in an inflammation of the lower gastro-intestinal tract. People with celiac disease must completely avoid consumption of gluten.  People with a gluten-sensitivity have not been clinically-diagnosed as having celiac disease; however, they exhibit similar symptoms after ingestion of gluten, such as diarrhea, chronic fatigue and headaches, which are alleviated upon exclusion of gluten from the diet.

Why is gluten-free becoming so popular?
The past decade has witnessed an increased prevalence of both clinically-diagnosed celiac disease and documented gluten-sensitivity due to expanded awareness in the medical profession of the symptoms, advances in diagnostic techniques, and an understanding throughout the healthcare sector of the remedial value of a gluten-free diet in the treatment of these cases.

In addition, there is a group of consumers who have neither celiac disease nor are gluten-sensitive, yet who attest to health benefits associated with adherence to a gluten-free diet.  However, such physiological effects have not been scientifically validated.

What are some gluten-free alternatives to bread, pizza, etc?
Consumers wishing to eat carbohydrates yet avoid gluten, can choose from a variety of substitutes formulated and labeled as gluten-free. These foods are typically developed using one or more gluten-free grains such as corn, quinoa, rice, tapioca, teff, and in some cases, oats, and are available as breads, cakes, muffins, crackers, pasta and even pizza crust. 

In the absence of direct substitutes, consumers wishing to avoid gluten can adjust their food selections and replace with gluten-containing grains.  Examples are foods such as rice cakes, rice-based sides, 100% corn-based tortillas and taco shells, potatoes of all varieties and formats, quinoa and quinoa-based foods.

Do starchy vegetables like potatoes have gluten?

What is being done to make gluten-free products taste better?
The taste of a food involves many senses in addition to taste, like smell (aroma), mouthfeel (texture) and sight (people eat with their eyes).  Due to advances in food technology, sensory evaluation and packaging, the quality of gluten-free baked goods has improved considerably over the past five years.  Examples include optimizing the beneficial properties of gluten-free grains such as quinoa, teff and rice; the de-glutenization of wheat; and use of ingredients that mimic the texture of gluten, such as xanthan gum.  Other creative approaches involve the use of strong yet pleasant flavors such as lemon, chocolate, wild blueberry and apple-cinnamon crunch, to name a few.

Carol T. Culhane, PHEc, MBA, President- International Food Focus Ltd., IFT member




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