The Great Gluten Controversy!
Gluten has become a controversial health topic in recent years. Everybody seems to be talking about it. But what’s the controversy all about? Most people seem to have an extreme opinion about gluten, one way or another. Some sources claim that it is safe for consumption by everyone, except those who have problems with it like celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy. On the other hand, some health experts claim that gluten is harmful to most people. Individuals facing problems with gluten often practice gluten-free diets, but many with no problems are also going gluten-free. Is gluten bad for all? This article explains what gluten is, and some important facts surrounding it.
What is Gluten?
Whole wheat flour is made up of the whole-wheat grain milled into a fine flour. Everything from the grain is present in the flour – the bran, the wheat germ, minerals, enzymes, wheat starch and of course, the gluten. The amount of gluten depends on the type of grain. Some types contain a lot of gluten and some almost none.
Gluten is a type of protein naturally found in wheat and some other grains like barley, spelt, bulgar, and rye. Wheat is the most common grain consumed that has gluten in it. The English dictionary states that gluten is “a mixture of two proteins present in cereal grains, especially wheat. Gluten is responsible for the elastic texture of the dough.”
Gluten is primarily made up of two types of proteins: “gliadin” which gives the bread the ability to rise during baking, and “glutenin” which is responsible for dough’s elasticity and glue-like consistency and giving the bread a classic chewy, spongy texture. Interestingly, the word “gluten” is derived from the Latin word “glutinum” which means “glue”.
Gluten is sometimes referred to as “seitan” or “wheat meat” which are used in recipes. It is gluten that makes bread chewy, pizza dough stretchy, and pasta noodles elastic. Therefore, getting such a texture in gluten-free baked goods can be difficult.
Gluten Content in Wheat Flour Varieties
Flours vary widely in their gluten content. Miller’s blend different flours in varying combinations to achieve a desired level of gluten. Knowing the gluten content of your flours can help you make the right choice for your specific baking needs.
Wheat flour is available in many varieties and the categorization is regional. “Soft” or “weak” carries less gluten content as compared to “strong” or “hard” varieties of wheat. Hard flour (or bread flour) is high in gluten with 12% to 14% gluten content. Its dough is elastic and tough enough to hold its shape well once baked. Soft flour is comparatively lower in gluten content and thus results in a bake with a finer, crumbly texture.
Hard wheat having strong and elastic gluten, and high protein is required for making good bread. For biscuits, soft wheat with low protein and weak & extensible gluten is required. For pasta products, hard wheat with strong gluten and high protein content is required.
Thus, wheat grain hardness, gluten and protein content are the main parameters considered for blending various types of flours used in baking.
Use of Gluten in Baking
Gluten is the main structure builder in your bread. It holds the air and gives your bread a chewy and elastic texture. When you knead your flour into a dough using water, the wet gluten particles interlink with each other and form a web/network. The longer you knead the dough, more links get formed and the tighter your dough will get.
These links are also formed automatically during fermentation or when the wet dough is left standing for a while. Your dough also gets stronger during this process. The carbon dioxide gas produced by yeast is trapped within this web of gluten, similar to air trapped inside balloons. This is what makes your dough rise.
Other than kneading and standing time, gluten particles are also developed and influenced by water quantity and quality, water temperature, and the addition of other ingredients like salt, milk, enzymes, conditioners, etc., in a recipe.
General Flour Types Used in Baking
The wheat grain has 3 parts that are used in the flour: The Endosperm or protein/starchy part, the Germ or protein/fat/vitamin-rich part, and the Bran or fiber part. Based on the usage of these grain parts, there are 4 general types of flour:
- White flour – made from the endosperm only
- Brown flour – made from the germ and bran
- Whole grain flour or wholemeal flour – made from the entire grain, including the bran, endosperm, and germ.
- Germ flour – made from the endosperm and germ
Indian and American Flours Used in Baking
These are generally categorized by how much of the grain is stripped away, namely:
- Wheat flour – whole grain flour – a mixture of germ, endosperm, and bran
- Atta flour– a mixture of endosperm and bran
- Maida– white flour – bleached endosperm
- Rava (Sooji) – coarsely ground endosperm
These are categorized by gluten/protein content, processing, and use, namely:
- All-purpose or plain flour – blended wheat with a protein content lower than bread flour, ranging from 9% to 12%. It is usually a blend of all hard or soft wheat and can range from low protein content to moderately high. It is considered as an inexpensive alternative to bakers’ flour which is used for most household baking needs.
- Self-rising or self-raising flour – white flour that is sold premixed with chemical leavening agents such as baking powder and salt.
- Bread flour or strong flour – It is intended for serious bread bakers and is always made from hard wheat that has a very high protein content, ranging from 10% to 13%. It is excellent for yeast bread baking. The extra gluten creates a strong and elastic dough. It traps more gas from the recipe’s yeast and yields a lighter, higher loaf.
- Cake flour– a finely milled white flour made from soft wheat that has a very low protein content, ranging from 8% to 10%, making it suitable for light, soft-textured cakes, and Other flours with higher protein content are unsuitable because they would make the cakes tough in texture.
- Pastry flour or cookie flour or cracker flour – contains slightly higher protein content than cake flour but lower than all-purpose flour, ranging from 9% to 10%. It is suitable for pie pastry, tarts, cookies, muffins, biscuits, and other quick bread.
- Enriched flour– white flour with nutrients added to compensate for the removal of the bran and germ
- Bleached flour– white flour treated with flour bleaching agents to whiten it (freshly milled flour is yellowish) and give it more gluten-producing potential.
- Durum flour– made from Durum wheat suitable for making pasta, pizza or flatbread
- Graham flour– a special type of whole wheat flour in which the endosperm is finely ground (just like white flour), while the bran and germ are coarsely ground. It is rare outside of USA but Indian atta flour is similar to it. Graham flour is typically used in the making of genuine graham crackers.
- Bromated flour has a maturing agent added that helps in developing gluten, something similar to flour bleaching agents. Bromated flour has been banned in many countries since bromate is classified as possibly carcinogenic in humans, but remains available in the USA.
- Spelt flour– flour produced from the type of wheat called spelt, used uncommonly.
- Gluten Flour – meant for casual bread bakers, it is a special highly concentrated flour with highest levels of gluten – 70% to 85%. Gluten flour, also known as vital wheat gluten, is made by milling the starches and bran from the flour. It isn’t used directly for baking; instead, it’s added to conventional flours in small quantities to improve the bread-making characteristics of ordinary all-purpose flour.
Why Indian Bakers Have to Add Extra Gluten to Bake Breads?
The quality of wheat produced in India and its gluten content varies from its US or European counterpart. The wheat varieties produced in India are among the best in the world for making chapatis or flatbread but they do not quite meet the quality requirements for most baked bread and biscuits. The average gluten content in Indian soft wheat varieties is relatively low (6-8%) as compared to that in the US or Europe (10-14%), which adversely affects the physical structure, shape, flavor, and texture of the end baked product. This makes traditional Indian flours quite unsuitable for baking.
It is a common practice in the baking industry to add extra gluten to bread recipes. Added gluten helps improve the dough’s ability to increase in volume, increase the bread’s structural stability and chewiness. Adding extra gluten ensures that the gluten network is strong enough to hold up the ingredients and that the end baked bread has a good rise. The gluten-added dough must be processed vigorously to induce it to rise to its full capacity.
Extra gluten is usually added to bread recipes that either has a large number of non-gluten containing ingredients or have ingredients containing coarser particles, such as bran or seeds. Also, bread requiring extra volume may require extra gluten, especially if the flour is weak. Types of bread that may need extra gluten are wholegrain bread, high fiber bread, cornbread, and mixed grain bread.
Natural Gluten vs. Commercial Gluten
Gluten is found naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains. In addition to the gluten found in grains, it can also be added as a separate ingredient manufactured commercially from washing the starch out of a flour and water mixture. This process needs a lot of care to maintain the baking quality of gluten. Commercial gluten is sold in markets as gluten, gluten flour, glutinated flour, or flour blends with no specifications. It is available either as a dried powder or in a wet form.
This ultra-processed, pre-packaged gluten can contribute to a host of health problems since it often comes with high sodium, additives, and fillers that may be harmful to your health and lead to many adverse side effects. Moreover, chemical-based gluten may not provide as many nutrients as plant-based natural gluten. Hence, its use may best be avoided.
Problems with Gluten
Most people tolerate gluten just fine. However, it can cause problems for people with certain health conditions, such as celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, and some other diseases. Gluten intolerance is the most common food sensitivity disease of the intestine. It is a condition wherein a person’s immune system responds abnormally to gluten.
Consuming gluten triggers an immune response in people intolerant to gluten. Gliadin protein present in gluten is known to be responsible for most of the negative health effects. Some people are also sensitive to the storage proteins present in conventional oats. They have a high chance of being contaminated during the growing, harvesting or processing stages. However, the proportion of such individuals is less than 1%. There are other items especially processed foods can contain “hidden gluten”. Lipstick, lip gloss, lip balm, play dough, medications, and supplements are a few such examples. Anyone who has a problem with gluten should always check the food label to make sure there is no gluten in the product.
Common Symptoms of a ‘Gluten Allergy’
Some of the most common gluten allergy symptoms are coughing, sneezing, asthma, itching, nasal congestion, tightness of the throat, tingling, abdominal pain, tongue/throat swelling, muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhea, and a metallic taste in your mouth.
How Does Gluten Affect Your Body?
Short-term Side Effects:
A major warning linked to gluten is its tendency to hinder proper nutrient breakdown and absorption from foods. Excess gluten leads to the formation of a glued-together constipating lump in the gut that may prevent proper digestion. Later, this undigested gluten damages the lining in your small intestine leading to inflammation and troublesome side effects, including flu-like feelings, mental fogginess, fatigue, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal problems, and a general feeling of being unwell.
A gluten allergy can lead to adverse effects such as anaphylaxis or an anaphylactic shock that may affect different organs. Affected people experience agitation, hives, breathing problems, reduced blood pressure levels, fainting, or even death if the reaction is very severe.
Long-term Side Effects:
For an intolerant person, regularly consuming gluten will result in long-term damage. This includes intestinal scarring, nutrient malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, weight loss, anemia, osteoporosis, other neurological or psychological diseases, and complications.
Who Should Avoid Consuming Gluten?
Avoiding gluten may help gluten-intolerant individuals feel better. Consuming even small amounts of gluten triggers symptoms like belly pain, bloating, etc. A gluten-free diet is, therefore, an important resource for combating gluten-related disorders.
People who suffer from celiac disease must completely eliminate gluten. Those who test negative for celiac disease but are experiencing gluten intolerance may also benefit from a gluten-free diet.
Gluten should also be avoided by people with a genetic risk for schizophrenia. The genetic defects of the illness may result from gluten. Furthermore, people with rheumatoid arthritis may also be able to improve their symptoms by incorporating a gluten-free diet.
If you think you may have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, avoid consuming gluten and monitor how you feel. Prior to beginning a gluten-free diet, consult a dietitian or health expert. Take advice on how to effectively eat a healthy and balanced diet.
Alternatives to Gluten
There are several grains that are naturally gluten-free. This includes rice (all varieties), corn and popcorn, quinoa, flax seed, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, teff, soy, sesame, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, nuts, cocoa, milk, eggs, meat, fish, seafood, poultry, legumes, fats, oils, etc. Oats may also be gluten-free as long as they haven’t been contaminated with wheat during processing.
Gluten-free flours are Arrowroot flour, tapioca flour, corn flour, banana flour, coconut flour, chickpea flour, soy flour, amaranth flour, hemp flour, pea flour, almond flour, quinoa flour, chestnut flour, lupine flour, and guar gum. Gluten-free flours can be used for baking, but keep the following tips in mind:
- Increase the number of liquids you use in the recipe
- Leave the dough to rest to thicken
- Do not let pasta or cookie dough dry out, consume it immediately
Gluten-free thickeners are corn starch, guar gum, xanthan gum, carob bean gum.
Is Gluten Bad for You?
In people with celiac disease, consuming food that includes gluten can lead to severe illnesses. And therefore, a gluten-free diet is critical for them. However, market research indicates an increasing number of adults are trying to reduce or eliminate gluten completely from their diet. So, is a gluten-free diet a healthier option for one and all?
Gluten is bad for health only if you have celiac disease. Following a gluten-free diet in the absence of celiac disease may be harmful to your health in the following ways:
- Nutritional deficiencies: Whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, contain important nutrients. In addition, many products including breakfast cereals that contain gluten, are also fortified. Avoiding foods with gluten can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients, such as iron, calcium, riboflavin, fiber, folate, thiamine and niacin.
- Fiber: Avoiding whole grains and eating gluten-free products can lead to a lack of fiber.
- Risk of cardiovascular disease: A person who follows a gluten-free diet without having celiac disease is at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. In the long term, he will be deprived of the heart-healthy benefits of whole grains.
- Risk of weight gain: Many processed gluten-free products can be higher in fat, sugar, and calories and lower in fiber than gluten equivalents which can lead to weight gain.
- Unhealthy gluten-free junk food: The reality is that gluten-free junk food and desserts are certainly no healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
There’s a sudden rise in the popularity of the gluten-free diet. But it’s probably more to do with health fad, marketing gimmicks, and several media endorsements by famous personalities. Before you consider trying a gluten-free diet, it is advisable to learn more about gluten. Understand how it can impact your body and health in the long run.
The bottom line is: For people with certain health conditions, removing gluten from the diet can make a huge difference. They just need to make sure to plan a balanced diet carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies. But for a majority of people, avoiding gluten is completely unnecessary!
Some popular bread recipes on my blog:
- Hokkaido Milk Bread
- Half White and Half Wheat Bread
- Eggless Ladi Pav Recipe
- Healthy Sweet Potato Bread
- Middle Eastern Bread Nan-E-Barbari
- French Bread Baguette