Gluten’s been getting a lot of hype in the health and nutrition world. Just about everyone knows someone who is “gluten intolerant” or avoids gluten in their diet for whatever reason. Research studying and supporting gluten intolerance, at this point, is a huge gray area. If someone where to ask me if I think gluten is bad, unhealthy, or should be avoided, I would say no. To me, eliminating any food completely from the diet (unless there is a serious allergy or health concern) seems silly and counterproductive to my philosophy of developing a good relationship with food. Granted there are many foods out there that should be strictly limited in a diet, but to develop a good relationship with food means all foods can fit. Having earned my Associates degree in Baking & Pastry from Johnson & Wales University and pursuing my Bachelors in Nutrition & Dietetics at The University of Connecticut, I’d like to give readers my unique perspective on the whole gluten controversy.
In health and nutrition, very little is black and white; yet food companies love to make things seem black and white. They do this simply to play on a niche market and manipulate consumers into thinking a product is superior, therefore consumers are willing to pay more for it. A big problem we as consumers face in America is manipulation. As soon as we realize the food market, especially the processed food market does not have our best interest at heart, the sooner we will become healthier and smarter consumers.
Gluten – As Told by a Baker
In baking school gluten was covered extensively. The simplest way to describe gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that gives structure to baked goods (mainly made from wheat or rye derived flours). When flour is combined with water and agitated, gluten formation increases. In the baking world, gluten is either favored or unfavored depending on the type of baked product you’re looking to achieve. The more gluten, the more structure. The more structure the more toughness. So, when making baked goods like cookies, muffins, and cakes, gluten is unfavored. Its unfavored in these products because they have a tender, delicate crumb. But when you compare the texture of a cookie or cake to a loaf of Italian bread for example, they are extremely different. They are different for a number of reasons, but many of these reasons are due to gluten.
The three most common types of flours are all-purpose, bread, and pastry flour. Wheat flours contain different amounts of gluten which depend on the growing/harvesting season. Wheat grown in the spring and harvested in the summer is called hard wheat, which lends itself to a higher protein thus higher gluten flour. This wheat is used to make bread flours. Bread flour is suitable for bread, bagel, and pasta making, simply because it contains higher levels of protein/gluten which gives a chewier and tougher texture. This is a beautiful thing – something we bakers live and breath for! On the other hand, wheat grown during the winter and harvested in early spring contains lesser amounts of protein, thus lesser amounts of gluten. This wheat is usually used to make pastry flour. Pastry flour is used to make tender baked goods and pastries such as cakes and cookies. Since it contains less gluten, there is less toughness, which is favored in these baked goods. All-purpose flour is usually a mix of these flours, hence the name all-purpose. Although all-purpose flour can be used for bread baking, it tends to favor the delicate baked goods. All-purpose flour won’t give you an amazing bread product like a perfect French baguette or Italian loaf, simply because its gluten formation during mixing is limited. But for the occasional home baker, all-purpose flour is usually the go to.
The other factor that affects gluten formation is agitation. In baking agitation means mixing. When making cookies, cakes, and muffins you want to limit the amount of mixing time in order to limit gluten formation. Most people love to mix the heck out of cake batter or brownie batter – which literally makes me cringe. I just want to yell, “YOU DON’T WANT GLUTEN FORMATION! STOP MIXING! ” Actually, the proper way to mix pastry batters, is to mix just enough to where you still see a bit of flour unmixed in the batter. Obviously, you want about 95% of the batter mixed. But you leave just that little bit of unmixed flour so when you’re either rolling your cookies into balls or spooning your batter into muffin tins, that little bit of flour magically mixes in. In turn, there is barely any gluten formation and you get a delicate, melt in your mouth cookie or muffin – exactly what you want! On the other hand breads require a much longer mixing time to develop the gluten. If you’ve ever worked with pizza dough for example, its extremely elastic and stretchy – completely different from a brownie batter. This elasticity is due to the gluten strands that form in the dough when mixed for a longer period of time. Once baked, pizza dough is tough enough to support its sauce, cheese, and toppings. It texture or crumb is airy, crusty, chewy, and takes a longer period of time to chew in the mouth. Without gluten in bread like products, its hard to get an airy, chewy, and crusty crumb. That’s why various gluten-free breads you may or may not have tried are pretty dense and have a grainy texture… not so yummy.
Gluten – As Told by a Nutritionist
To me, its hard to picture a world without gluten. Our ancestors from thousands of years back relied on flour/gluten to make bread. Bread is truly intertwined into all food cultures across the world. In many countries, bread baking is still a sacred and communal part of their culture – it’s truly amazing. When animal protein or fresh fruits and vegetables are limited, especially in poor households people always have bread to sustain them. This stands to reason in many countries, not excluding America. Yet the American bread culture differs greatly from other cultures around the world. In America, bread has become highly commercialized. Bread is no longer just flour, water, and salt; bread ingredient lists are huge and contain a ton of sugar! Commercialized bread production by-passes traditional bread making techniques that have been used for centuries to get the perfect crumb, taste, and texture. Instead of using technique, they use chemicals and other ingredients to manipulate the taste, crumb, and texture of gluten containing products; this makes ingredient lists huge, make Americans feel like poorly, and keep costs to a minimum. Low costs means high profit for food companies. Very few Americans bake their own bread, nor do they understand what good bread is. This dynamic has made gluten the perfect target enemy.
There’s some evidence out there that suggests gluten is a hard to digest protein. Some say it causes extreme inflammation in the body and gut. Others say it makes us fat and believe following a gluten-free diet is healthier. But is all that true? Does this mean we should completely avoid gluten? Do the pros really outweigh the cons? It’s hard to say. But I don’t believe those questions are the right ones to be asking. Remember, nothing is black and white.
In short, gluten alone does not make you fat nor is it the cause of all your health problems. Commercially produced gluten containing products like bread, pasta, and bagels usually contain a ton of added sugar, preservatives, bread conditioners, and crappy oils. On top of all this, commercially produced bread is usually made from the cheapest, nutrient stripped, and bottom of the barrel flours to keep costs low and profits high. This is the dynamic we as American consumers are faced with everyday when we walk down the bread aisle. But the important questions we should be asking are, what’s actually in a food product and what is it contributing or not contributing to our health? Not just if it contains gluten or not. A gluten free cake does not mean the cake is any healthier than a gluten containing cake. Yet food companies want to convince you that “gluten free” means healthier or better. I’m sorry to break it to you, but nutrition is simply NOT that easy. Not only do food companies dupe your knowledge, they also dupe your wallet – charging more for gluten free foods.
I’m not saying to not try to limit your gluten intake. I’m also not saying that all gluten-free foods are unhealthy. Certainly, there are extremely nutritious grains that are gluten free, such as: buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, gluten-free oats, and millet, just to name a few. But to me, limiting your gluten intake seems more like limiting carbs, something dieters do all the time – simply with different terminology and little education. Everyone seems to know something about nutrition, but majority of consumers only know the “food trends” or basics of nutrition. Purchasing a box of Popsicle’s simply because they’re labeled “gluten-free” does not mean they’re any more nutritious. On second thought, what would gluten be doing in a box of Popsicle’s in the first place? But surprisingly many consumers will actually pay the extra dollar or two dollars for Popsicle’s labeled as gluten-free, simply because they think they are healthier. This sad truth makes nutritionists and informed consumers shake their heads and make food companies pockets grow big. When you understand food, you can outsmart food companies marketing schemes – when you don’t understand food, food companies will outsmart YOU every time!
To be honest, I tried eating gluten free for a few weeks. I did feel a bit better, less bloated mostly, but I also felt deprived. I felt like I wasn’t being true to who I was or what I loved. I literally love ALL foods, but also understand when and where foods fit into a healthy diet. I don’t go eating pasta every single day, but you bet your bottom dollar when my Nana makes her famous pasta and meatball dinner, I’m all in! That’s the beauty in eating a healthy diet; you have to eat AND you have to have a healthy relationship with food. It’s not about
eliminating foods and depriving your body but instead, limiting the sometimes foods and knowing the rules of what good food is.
Tips for Eating Healthier Gluten Products
- My first tip for you is to avoid 85% of items in the bread aisle, they are just crap. Say goodbye to Wonder bread – please.
- Tip number two, read your labels and read your ingredient list. You simply want a bread high in protein, high in fiber, with low to virtual 0 grams of sugar.
- Tip number three, look for whole grain, multi-grain, sprouted or simply unrefined breads/gluten products. Usually the darker the bread with the more seeds and grains you can see, the better. But be sure to check for sugar content on these guys. Many commercially produced whole grain breads add a ton of sugar to enhance the taste of these “earthier” tasting breads.
- Tip number four, buy freshly made bread from a bakery or even your grocery store bakery. Although, I’d love to tell everyone to support your local bakery, I’m sure many of us simply do not have a bakery nearby and must resort to the grocery store bakery – it’s okay.
- Tip number five, learn to make you’re own bread! It’s easier than you think. Although, time consuming, it’s totally worth it and there are ways to bake bread ahead of time and store it for months, i.e. the freezer. This is what I do when I make bread; cut it into slices, put it in a zip lock freezer bag, and freeze it. You can take a slice out whenever, let it thaw out or toast it right out of the freezer; it’s that simple!
- Tip number six, try eating sourdough bread if you’re truly concerned about gluten. Sourdough is fermented before baking and contains microbes that feast on the gluten in the bread dough – this lowers the final gluten content in the bread!
- Tip number seven, it’s okay to eat pasta, Italian bread, baguettes, and other white flour products sometimes – no you’re not going to die or get fat overnight. Of course, you shouldn’t make them apart of your daily diet, but it’s so satisfying to appreciate a chewy and crusty piece of bread every once in a while!
- Tip number eight, if you’re still gung-ho about eating gluten-free foods, be sure to read food labels. You still want a product with low to virtually no sugar, high protein, and high fiber product – gluten-free or not!