What is gluten? Gluten itself is a protein that is found in wheats and several other grains such as barley and rye. It’s primary function in foods is to give elasticity, helping dough to rise and giving many foods a chewy texture.
Gluten is recognized as a protein that is formed from gliadin and gluten. When bread is kneaded, the two compounds cross-link to form a network, creating a gluten formation.
Gluten is very high in bread flours, while pastry flours only contain a small amount of gluten. This is the reason why breads rise significantly while pastries do not typically rise.
When the cross-linking occurs to form gluten and yeast is added, a complex system is formed which traps carbon dioxide formed from fermentation. The gluten network traps the carbon dioxide and causes the bread to rise.
When the bread is baked, the gluten structure is stabilized, causing a light and stable product. Gluten will also cause the bread to stale if kept too long. The gluten will bind to water in the atmosphere, causing the bread to become slightly soggy and lose its fresh texture and taste.
Since gluten is known to be a protein, it is used in many imitation meat for vegetarians and vegans. Most products that are imitation hamburgers, chicken patties, or other meat products contain gluten as the protein source. Gluten’s firm texture can be used to imitate the same texture of meat.
Gluten is also a common food additive used for stabilizing, thickening, or flavoring many common products. Ice creams usually have a small amount of gluten present as well as ketchup. The absorbent nature of gluten allows it to thicken these products without using chemicals. Other products that contain gluten are cosmetics, some vitamins, and glues.
While gluten is common in many foods, there has been an increased interest in following a gluten-free diet. Approximately 1% of the population suffers from Celiac disease. This disease is gluten intolerance. The only treatment for Celiacs is to avoid gluten.
To fill the need for gluten-free products, many stores and bakeries have started offering gluten-free products and baked goods. Currently, the USDA is working on creating guidelines for labeling foods that contain gluten. Gluten is beginning to be treated like nuts, which have to be clearly labeled on a food label as a possible allergen. Since gluten is a common additive in many foods, it can be challenging for individual’s with Celiac disease to identify it in many products.
Opinions differ on whether gluten contributes to weight gain or even certain diseases. However for people that have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), reducing or eliminating gluten seems to help dramatically. Gluten is considered to be even a possible cause of IBS. Since health is a prerequisite to weight loss, it is probably a good idea to reduce gluten, especially if you frequently suffer from stomach aches.