Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rootin' Tootin' Gluten

Dear Tricia, I keep seeing labels in the grocery store that say "gluten free." What is gluten? Is it something I'm not supposed to eat? Please advise.

It's tempting to think something is bad for you when the marketing is done well, isn't it? Fat-free, cholesterol-free, alcohol-free... The third one isn't exactly compatible with my lifestyle, so I'm all about ignoring labels. But I digress.
Gluten is a natural protein that exists in wheat, barley, oats, and rye, but people most commonly associate it with wheat. It magically appears when liquid is mixed with those grains. Gluten gives baked stuff like bread its structure: think about a chewy, crusty piece of bread. That bread is chewy because it has lots of gluten in it. Breads that stick to the roof of your mouth, like Iron Kids (please go check out my bread molester post!) don't have a lot of gluten in them. They still have it: but because of the ingredients and the way it is mixed, there isn't as much gluten. Have I lost you yet? Blame it on the glass of Franzia right next to me.
Unfortunately, some people are allergic or have an intolerance to gluten, just like some people can't tolerate dairy or red meat. Their bodies just react in a bad way. (Kind of like how I react to Will Smith movies.) People that can't tolerate gluten usually suffer from one of two things: Celiac's Disease, or Autism.
OK, now here's what happens to a person's tumtum that can tolerate wheat and gluten. Their morning slice of toast eventually migrates its magical journey into their stomach where the lining (that is actually covered in tiny microscopic hair-like beings called cilia) absorbs all of the toast's nutritional value. The cilia are like little straws that suck up nutrients and send the nutrients to the rest of your body.
In the stomach of a someone with Celiac's Disease, the gluten finally makes it pilgrimage to their stomach, and the cilia just lay down flat and let the toast/wheat/gluten/everything else you ate with it go shooting through your stomach and out your body. It's not fun. That's why they need gluten-free products, and rightfully so. No one likes toast shooting out their butt.
Baked goodies that are gluten-free are taste and feel a lot different than regular baked goodies. Having to make something with potato flour or rice flour drastically changes the outcome. Gluten-free breads are a lot more dense and crumbly without gluten, and gluten-free cookies are often crunchy, rather than soft. But the industry is getting bigger and more competetive, and better products are being made all the time. I once had an awesome gluten-free pizza crust that you would have never known was any different than the real thing. There are even gluten-free beers now. (!!!!)
Oh, and you may notice some labels on products that say "gluten-free" when they never had anything to do with gluten to begin with. Like potato chips. Or hairspray. Come on, marketing geniuses: America may be getting dumber, but we're not that dumb. That's like putting a label on a head of lettuce and calling it "vegetarian!" You can't fool me.
One last thing I didn't touch on: that some people with Autism are gluten-intolerant. While its not a full-blown, diagnosed cure or anything, a huge revolution is going on in the world of Autism, and parents are taking gluten out of their children with Autism's diets. Apparently it has a huge effect on reducing their symptoms, but it's still a little controversial.
There you go boys and girls. I hope you enjoyed your lesson on boot scootin' rootin' tootin' gluten. Yee haw.

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