Since gluten is a commonly used buzzword in our food world today, this week we’re going to dive into gluten – what is it, where does it come from, and what’s the deal with gluten and health.
To start – what is gluten? Gluten is the combination of two proteins that are found in flours. When water is added to the flour, the two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, hop together to form a gluten molecule. As gluten develops (as the two proteins join together), dough or batter becomes less lumpy and becomes more smooth, elastic and bouncy. A common trick you might see in cooking shows tests if enough gluten has developed in dough in order to move onto the next stage: the windowpane test. Take a small piece of dough, stretch it between your fingers. If it can form a thin sheet that you can see light through without ripping (a ‘windowpane’), you’re good to go. Your dough has peaked in terms of a balance between stretch and strength.
When that dough is baked, most of the water evaporates, and all you’re left with in terms of gluten is a structure that holds its shape – giving essential shape and structure to bread. Different types of bread-making can result in different types of gluten development and therefore a different final structure in the baked loaf! We’ve got this down – onto the fun stuff.
Clearly, one of the biggest diet crazes right now is going gluten-free. People swear by it for both weight loss as well as increased energy, clearer skin, and any and all things to happen to a human body. To start off, reputable sources like the Mayo Clinic say that a gluten-free diet is not necessary unless you have a disease like celiac or a demonstrated wheat allergy that requires you stay away from gluten. They even go as far as to say that the weight loss often associated with a gluten-free diet is likely just the cause of a pretty restrictive diet – not simply because you’re not eating gluten anymore. I think it is essential to differentiate between good bread and bad bread – since it might just be the cause of all these ‘gluten stomachaches’ we keep hearing about.
- Bread, traditionally, is naturally fermented, like sourdough. In the endless fermentation that produces a loaf of sourdough, in addition to nutrients and vitamins becoming easier for our body to absorb, gluten becomes easier as well. Little microbes that are busy fermenting start to chew stuff up for you, which makes your body handle it a lot easier. And before you get freaked out about microbes in your bread – microbes are everywhere, helping us live and thrive. Check out the links at the bottom for more information and various cool facts.
- So, now that we know sourdough might be easier to digest, why does that make normal supermarket bread different? There is usually no fermentation in supermarket bread – so you are eating completely undigested gluten! That doesn’t feel good on bellies (think about eating a handful of raw flour), and people often associate that with gluten as a whole – but they shouldn’t. Gluten is healthy, and bread often brings about a host of other nutrients as well. Understanding the process by which your bread came to be helps break it down. Even people who have been demonstrated to be sensitive to gluten can often eat naturally fermented sourdough without ill effects. Important.
Now that you’re a gluten expert, go annoy your friends with this. Share the bread love:
- Mayo Clinic breaks down diet myths here.
- History of sourdough, including natural fermentation, health benefits, and an Ancient Egyptian bakery.
- For those of you coming here because of my microbe comment: TED Talk on how bacteria talk, Bonnie Bassler exploded my mind when this came out. Watch and learn.