The word “gluten” actually derives from the Latin word for glue. It refers to a substance found primarily in wheat and to a much lesser extent in rye, another species of grass. More specifically, the substance with the rather infelicitous name is not found in the wheat itself, but in its two precursors, the proteins gliadin and glutenin which, when moistened in water, combine to form the mesh of proteins known as gluten. In bread, gluten is what gives the dough its elasticity and bakers speak in terms of a dough’s strength or weakness as qualities that correspond to the amount of gluten in it. It is the extensible and elastic quality provided by gluten that traps the carbon dioxide, without which bread would never rise.
People have been eating leavened dough products containing gluten at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians and nowadays wheat accounts for a fifth of the calories in the human diet worldwide. (Actually a lower percentage than it used to be, since for much of European history bread represented more than half of the calories in the diet of the peasantry and the urban poor.) The major problem that arises is that for a certain percentage of the population (an estimated 1 in 133 persons in Canada, according to the Canadian Celiac Association) the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged by gluten. This results in an inability of the body to absorb nutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, which are necessary for good health.
In these people, diagnosed with celiac disease, a wide range of symptoms may be present — symptoms which may appear together or singularly, in children or adults. At present there is no cure for celiac disease, but symptoms may be readily treated by following a strictly gluten-free diet. This is challenging because gluten is present not only in the obvious things such as bread, pizza, pastries, etc. but is also hidden in all sorts of processed foods, from sausages to soups. (Just thinking about the time consuming process of carefully reading all labels when doing grocery shopping makes me feel quite exhausted.) Still, gluten-free is do-able, and the Canadian Celiac Association website has all sorts of helpful advice for those with this disease.
The plot thickens, however, when we find out that another (unestimated) percentage of the population appears to have “gluten sensitivity”, or “gluten intolerance”. These people do not have celiac disease, there is no damage to their intestines, but they can get a variety of symptoms when they eat gluten and they feel better on a gluten-free diet.
Common symptoms of “gluten sensitivity” include abdominal pain similar to irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, headaches and paresthesia (tingling of the extremities). There is also a possibility that a subgroup of patients with psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia might be affected by gluten sensitivity. From the reading that I’ve done (and I am definitely no expert!!) these people have really troubling symptoms.
Anyway, the phenomenon of gluten sensitivity is being researched. The prevalence of this condition is not well known as there is no diagnostic test available and individuals often diagnose themselves — always a dangerous precedent. It is also not clear if this is a permanent problem or whether some may outgrow this sensitivity over time.
But there are other issues that complicate this whole range of problems. Because of the poorly understood role of carbohydrates in the treatment of obesity, for instance, there has arisen a very large group of dieters — people who could be labelled “gluten avoiders.” The number of gluten avoiders has grown quickly over the last few years and gluten-free products now are widely produced and distributed. (I notice, for instance, that even my beloved Dufflet now has gluten-free bakery products available.) This is where everything becomes murky and confusing and real controversy arises. There is an excellent discussion of the complex issues surrounding gluten avoidance in a Maclean’s article by Cathy Gulli at http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/09/10/gone-gluten-free/ along with a video in which Gulli questions the whole gluten-free craze for the general population.
The article serves as a superb backgrounder for our “The Gluten Effect Symposium” to be held on Saturday, October the 5th, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m, here at the Spec. This will be an educational forum in which “gluten-free” can be investigated and discussed with people from the Canadian Celiac Association, the Waterdown Clinic of Naturopathic Medicine and the Hamilton Area Chefs’ Association. There will also be local businesses offering gluten free products and food demonstrations. Tickets are available online at http://www.gocooking.ca Hope to see you there.
There are all sorts of gluten-free recipes on the Internet. This one seemed to have lots of available ingredients and sounded really comforting.
Gluten-Free Blueberry Corn Muffins
• 2 tablespoons tapioca flour plus 2 tablespoons for dusting pan
• 1 1/4 cups finely ground yellow cornmeal
• 2/3 cup white rice flour*
• 1/4 cup cornstarch
• 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
• 1/2 cup whole milk
• 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
• 4 large eggs
• 1 cup fresh or frozen (unthawed) blueberries (about 5 ounces)
• *Be sure to use white rice flour; brown will result in gritty muffins.
Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 400°F. Butter muffin pan and lightly dust with tapioca flour, knocking out excess.
In large bowl, whisk together tapioca flour, cornmeal, rice flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In medium bowl, whisk together butter, milk, maple syrup, and eggs.
Using wooden spoon, stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until fully combined. Gently fold in blueberries.
Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each cup 3/4 full. Bake until tops are domed and feel springy to the touch, and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack.
Makes a dozen big muffins. Always use yellow cornmeal for moist muffins. Cranberries can be substituted for the blueberries, but then use 2 tbsp. of sugar.