Gluten free cooking doesn’t have to be boring.
Gluten has recently come into the spotlight as more and more products are being developed that are being labeled as “gluten free.” But what exactly is gluten, and why is it necessary for some people to avoid it?
The simple answer is that it is a protein composite found in wheat and other closely related grains, like rye and barley. It helps give dough its elasticity while helping it rise and keep its shape. It is also used in a number of other products like makeup, hair treatments and skincare. But how it is formed is a bit unusual. Gluten is a primary ingredient in wheat flour, and is the combination of glutenin and gliadin proteins. However, it doesn’t exist until water is added to the flour. Once the flour gets wet, the proteins grab hold of each other to form gluten. Gluten is tough and elastic and holds bubbles of gases inside the bread.
Gluten is an important part of baking and is contained in a lot of products we consume on a daily basis, whether we know it or not. Let’s take a look at the history of wheat to see what sort of role it plays in our lives.
The History of Wheat
Wheat has been around since the beginning of civilization as we know it, around 10,000 B.C. It can be considered the oldest domesticated crop grown for food. Emmer, Einkorn and Spelt are among the earliest cultivated wheat species and are commonly referred to as “ancient wheats”. Modern wheat (Triticum aestivum) has its roots in these 3 varieties.
Wheat was found in abandoned settlements as old as 8,000 years, and the British Museum contains loaves of bread that were baked in Egypt over 5,000 years ago! The Stone Age saw humans begin to grind wheat with rocks to make flour, which marked one of the first times in history that humans realized they could make their food in addition to hunting it.
Millstones were developed around 5,500 B.C. to help grind wheat more quickly. This led to humans being able to make flour in larger quantities and the ability to reap grains for cereals and breads. It may be one of the reasons we started living in communities instead of alone as hunters and gatherers. It was easier to feed a group than fend for yourself. Animals were no longer the primary source of food, which allowed for settlements to become established.
Around 3,000 B.C. Egyptians discovered they could mix beer with flour and cause it to rise, perhaps by accident, when they replaced regular water with fermentation. This created yeast. Along with the invention of the bread oven, the Egyptians were the first to create a sustainable food source from flour. Grinding wheat by hand, however, was a tedious and time-consuming task. However, it continued in this way until about 2,000 B.C., when the Romans harnessed animal power to grind the wheat quickly and easily. They also started to produce a finer type of flour by sifting it through a sieve before baking, allowing for different types of baking. In addition to these developments, they improved on the bread oven design and created two different types – the Beehive and the Pot, or what we know today as the Dutch oven.
The progression of wheat use rapidly developed in the coming centuries; in 168 B.C. the Roman Baker’s Guild was created, and daily use of bread meant that bakers were recognized as free men while all other craftsmen were considered slaves. In 85 B.C., watermills were invented to replace animal power in Asia Minor, and was later followed by the invention of windmills in 1180 A.D. People got smarter with milling as the years went on, and started to build the mills closer to the grain during the Middle Ages, around 1400 – 1600 A.D. This time period also saw the start of crop rotation, which allowed for more crops to be grown throughout the year.
Image source: wikipedia.org
From the middle of the 17th century onward, the world saw rapid improvement in the way wheat was produced and used. Settlements grew larger, more grain was able to be harvested at one time, and the invention of the mechanic seed drill meant harvesting wheat became less labor intensive. Farmers were also able to grow crops on a larger scale. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the invention of baking tins and silk sieves to help improve baking times and allow for easier slicing. Wheat then became globally traded. Different types of cereals and breads were developed and learning about the genetics of grain meant a variety of wheat with higher yields could be grown to feed the world’s growing population.
As you can see, wheat has been a staple of life for thousands of years and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. So why has this life-sustaining grain become a problem for us?
For one thing, it is not the same grain that our ancestors had. The degree of natural evolution of wheat is quite small compared to the scientific human interventions in agriculture over the past 50 years. Wheat strains have been hybridized and crossbred not only to make it resistant to disease and environmental conditions, but most of all to increase yield. All of this was done without safety testing for human consumption. Such genetic modifications have come at a cost because the changes in wheat protein structure could be the difference as far as our immune system is concerned.
Wheat Digestion and Celiac Disease
There are a growing number of people that are having trouble digesting wheat products. This is closely linked to genetic modifications and industrialization of wheat and how it is processed. Before the 1950’s, people made bread by hand, but after World War II ended, there was a push to rapidly produce food on a larger scale. This led to the quality of bread diminishing in favour of excessive use of baker’s yeast, reduced fermentation time, and artificial additives and enzymes being added to extend shelf life. The relentless drive to lower the cost of food production drastically lowered the quality of bread products, and nutritional content was compromized.
Celiac disease is classified as an extreme intolerance to gluten, which was first diagnosed in the mid-20th century. The discovery of this disease coincided with the industrialization of food production. The addition of chemicals not before seen in food led to gastric troubles like never before. The symptoms of celiac disease are:
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive gas
- Muscle cramps
- Joint and bone pain
- Severe skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
This is not to be confused with a wheat allergy, which creates an allergy-causing antibody to the proteins found in wheat, and can be caused by not only eating wheat products but sometimes just inhaling wheat spores. Wheat can be found in unlikely products such as ketchup, soy sauce or beer. Avoiding wheat is the primary treatment for a wheat allergy. Avoiding gluten, wheat and processed foods can decrease the symptoms of celiac disease. There is no cure for these disorders, but carefully inspecting foods before consumption can help you manage your health without medication.
Hidden Sources of Gluten
The word “gluten” is often not advertised on product packaging, which is why identifying other terms that convey gluten is very important for people with celiac disease or wheat allergies:
- Brewer’s yeast
- Wheat bran
- Oatmeal (can have cross contamination with wheat)
- Graham flour
- Modified wheat starch
- Malted milk
These are just a few examples of words that might appear on foods containing gluten. But there are other foods that may also be harbouring gluten:
- Sauces, marinades or gravies – these are often thickened with flour to make them more substantial.
- Processed meats – sausage, meatballs and other ground meats can contain breadcrumbs to thicken the meat and help it stick together. Processed deli meats are susceptible to cross-contamination from other foods sliced on the processor, and imitation seafood often contains gluten.
- Vegetarian meat alternatives – veggie burgers and other meat-free foods often contain seitan, often known as wheat gluten. Fried tofu might be battered in a gluten-loaded mixture, or gluten can be added as filler for certain vegetarian alternatives.
- Soups and stews – the noodles and barley that are a common soup ingredient containing gluten, and stews can also be thickened with flour during cooking.
- Scrambled eggs – restaurants that serve eggs and omelettes often add pancake batter before cooking to make the eggs fluffier, and even if a gluten-free mixture is added it can be susceptible to cross-contamination if cooked on a griddle with other foods containing gluten.
- Processed potatoes – whole potatoes are naturally gluten-free, but potato chips and French fries can be seasoned with malt vinegar or contain wheat starch that was added during production.