Not long ago, following a gluten-free diet was tantamount to a kiss of death as far as pleasurable food and eating were concerned. Post why? For the simple reason that most foods made without gluten had objectionable tastes and were dry and dense; acceptable alternatives simply did not exist. Since gluten is found in so many processed foods, it certainly put a damper on dining pleasures! No so anymore. Eating gluten-free has become more mainstream, as advancements in food product development have led to the availability of many high quality gluten-free foods.
What is gluten, and who needs a gluten-free diet? Lets start at the beginning with a short lesson in food chemistry. Gluten is a protein group found primarily in wheat but also in rye and barley, and to a lesser extent in oats. Composed of two other proteins, glutenin and gliadin, gluten is responsible for both the elasticity and strength of dough in baked products. This is important because gluten holds carbon dioxide within its structure during baking, which allows for leavening. Without gluten, the even, open texture characteristic of quality breads becomes quite compact, dense and basically undesirable.
Wheat flour is used in many other processed foods, too, in addition to baked goods. Individuals following a gluten-free diet have to pay close attention to food labels, omitting any foods from their diet which contain even the tiniest amount of wheat. Who needs a gluten-free diet? Individuals who have gluten-sensitive enteropathy, also known as celiac disease or gluten intolerance. When individuals with this condition eat foods containing gluten, they experience uncomfortable gastrointestinal disturbances such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Recently it has also been speculated that a gluten-free diet may be helpful in other medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, autism and depression (yes, even depression!) Keep in mind that insufficient scientific evidence exists to prove a cause and effect relationship between gluten and these conditions, but certainly omitting gluten from a diet can not hurt anyone wishing to improve their health.
Although wheat is the principal type of grain used in breads and other baked goods, it should be easy to just substitute it with another type of flour, right? Wrong. Grains differ in their protein profile, so when another flour is substituted for wheat in baking, the amount of gluten is either absent or quite low. This causes an inability of the dough to rise normally, resulting in a dense, coarse, undesirable texture. It takes an extensive amount of food product development work to get just the right balance of ingredients to produce a quality food product using substitute flours. What types of flour are used to replace wheat? Grain flours from corn, potato, tapioca, amaranth, arrowroot, millet, quinoa, teff, beans and nuts are the ones most commonly used.
Currently gluten-free foods can be found in most grocery stores, as well as health food stores and other specialty markets. Try google-ing "gluten free foods"; there is a wide variety of tasty wheat -free foods available on the Internet, too.
Now you can truly be gluten-free and lovin 'it.