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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When Good Protein Goes Bad - Gluten

Ahhh summer - so beautiful, so busy! Seems like I always fall off the blog wagon this time of year (conferences, vacations, etc.), I hope you all understand. Today's topic is gluten -a protein found in some grains.

First, what is gluten & where does it come from? When water is added to the endosperm of: wheat, (including spelt, durum & semolina), rye, oats, barley, triticale or kamut, the proteins gliadin (a monomeric protein "single chain") and glutenin (a polymeric protein - "many chain") combine to form a colloid complex called gluten. It is the intermolecular interaction of these two proteins which produce the viscoelastic properties of gluten (i.e. elasticity of dough). Gluten is also known as the water-insoluble protein which remains behind when the starch of the grain is washed away.

Gluten is responsible for trapping air bubbles in baked goods providing the lightness in yeast or leavened baked goods. Because of this, it is difficult to replace; you have to find something, or a combination of things, that work structurally similar to gluten. Anyone who has read a "gluten-free" label has probably seen many of these items: rice flour, sorghum, tapioca starch, xanthan gum, soy flour, potato starch, corn starch, guar gum, buckwheat (which isn't a wheat) or chickpea flour. Most of these plant proteins will do part of the job of the gluten, but are usually needed in combination to the job of both providing elasticity and water binding.

Ok, so you know what gluten is, but why all the fuss about it? Are there really that many people out there with celiac disease? Probably not, but there is another fraction of the population that is regarded as gluten-intolerant and limiting their intake of gluten makes them feel better. To that end, in 2008 gluten-free sales were almost $1.6 billion (retail) and is expected to almost double by 2012 (from Packaged Foods 2009 report).

Now those who choose, or must, remove gluten from their diets still need fiber and B-vitamins, both of which are found in these grains. So what choices exist? Don't worry, there is quinoa, amaranth, millet, corn and teff. Which, other than corn, are lesser known in the US but are widely consumed grains in other parts of the world and aren't that hard to find here.

I'll be talking about these grains in my next post -because the scariest items are the ones we know the least about and I don't want these grains to be scary! Until then - be well!


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