Many of you have been writing me emails and leaving comments. Thanks everyone; keep it coming. (And tell your friends about this site.) Most of you probably can’t eat gluten already. But some of you have been asking: what the heck is gluten, anyway?
Well, let me give you a hint. It’s nowhere to be found in this photograph. There is no gluten in chickpeas, fresh carrots, Italian parsley, summer tomatoes, or green beans. If I had found any goat cheese in the refrigerator this evening, I would have tossed some of that in. There is no gluten in goat cheese. Or most cheeses. Just blue cheese, and sometimes gorgonzola (can you guess why?). If leftover roasted chicken or thinly sliced beef or smoked salmon had been lurking my refrigerator, I certainly would have thrown those in. No gluten in meat or fish. I thought about putting in some of the blueberries sitting on my counter this afternoon, left over when my darling nephew asked me, “Eat blueberries? Do you love blueberries, Shauna?” Yes I do, Elliott. But somehow, blueberries didn’t feel like the right choice, even though fresh fruit never has gluten in it. You probably can’t see them, but there’s meyer lemon grapeseed oil and fig balsamic vinegar in this salad. No gluten in them. This was my spontaneous, gorgeous gluten-free dinner, inspired by this site. (I’m enthralled and a little obsessed by the plethora of fabulous food blogs out there. Go exploring with some of the links to the right. You won’t be disappointed.)
So what is gluten?
Gluten is the elastic protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Its elasticity is why French bread holds together, why angel-food cakes rise so high, and why H and H bagels in New York are so wonderfully doughy. Gluten is the glue that holds together baked goods and pasta. In fact, gluten comes from the same Latin root as glue. Think of gluten as the glue of wheat, rye, and barley.
(And if you want a far more technical version of this explanation, click here.)
Other starches, like rice, corn, and potatoes, also have proteins that make them starchy. In fact, some technical experts will call those proteins gluten as well. But that’s a misnomer. Or maybe just too simple. Technically, the elastic proteins in wheat, rye, and barley are called gliadin and glutenin. Gluten is sometimes used as the umbrella term for all elastic proteins in grains and starchy vegetables. This scares some celiacs into not eating potatoes or rice. If this is you, breathe easy. The “glutens” of rice and corn are not the gluten of wheat, rye, and barley. This is why they react differently when you try to bake with them. In other words, this is why a cake made with only brown rice flour falls flat on its ass. (And really, it just wouldn’t taste that good either.)
Gluten (or, to be accurate, the gluten that damages the small intestines of people with celiac disease, and makes life uncomfortable for people with gluten sensitivity) is also part of the genetic structure of spelt, durum, semonlina, kamut, couscous, and triticale. I’ve never seen triticale in my life, and therefore, it’s pretty easy to avoid. I love couscous, but I can live without it. Spelt and kamut are ancient grains, wheat in its natural form, before it was hybridized. But they still contain gluten. This means that people who are allergic to wheat but fine with gluten can eat spelt. (I know. I can hardly keep track of all the allergen categories either.) If you can’t eat gluten, beware: hundreds of products advertise themselves as “Wheat Free!” but that doesn’t necessarily mean gluten free. Barley can be dangerous. Almost all beers are made from barley hops, of course, or use barley in the brewing. Anything malted comes from barley. So does some caramel coloring. Some soy milks or rice milks have barley in them. Root beer has gluten in it, except for this glorious exception. Still, wheat is where you’ll find gluten 90% of the time. This is why the FDA recently called for comments and scientific suggestions “…to help the agency to define and permit the voluntary use on food labeling of the term ‘gluten-free.’” Eventually, maybe by the year 2010, the government will mandate that companies list wheat on their labels.
That will be a relief, if an incomplete one. Because giving up gluten would be infinitely easier if it just meant never having a pastrami sandwich on rye. But, believe it or not, the pastrami is as likely to make me as sick as the rye bread. Why? Gluten is hidden in thousands of products, in places you would never think to suspect. Mass-processed meats are often made with gluten, to fill out the salami or make the turkey seem plumper. I bet you never guessed that meat would have wheat in it. Most popsicles have gluten in them. Did you know that? Gluten is often used as a thickener in commercial products. Think about the flour paste you made in elementary school. Remember how thick and viscous it grew as you stirred it? Now, imagine that in popsicles. If you make your own, they end up fairly thin, just frozen juice. A good, old-fashioned popsicle requires real concentration and sucking powers, because it lasts and lasts. In most commercial popsicles, and a hundred other packaged foods, “natural flavors” means gluten.
Other places gluten can hide:
–modified food starch
–textured vegetable protein (think veggie burgers, or any fake meat)
–soy sauce (most of it contains wheat; you have to use wheat-free tamari instead)
–prescription and over-the-counter drugs, even some vitamins
And remember, we’re not just talking about those ingredients in pure form. Who eats handfuls of modified food starch? But take a look at the labels of the foods in your kitchen right now, and search for it. It’s in everything. If you’re trying to avoid gluten, you may reach for some healthy, organic baked tofu at the local co-op. That’s going to be good for you, right? Well, about the tenth ingredient on the side of the package is soy sauce. If you don’t look, and you eat the tofu, you’re sick for two days. You can even get gluten by licking your envelope, because the glue on it might contain wheat.
It grows worse. I have learned, through horrible trial and error, that food companies are legally required to tell you everything that is in food. (Except that no food package ever says: CONTAINS GLUTEN. You have to decipher that yourself.) But food companies are not required to tell you what is on food. Anything packaged that comes in individual pieces–candy, frozen foods, corn tortillas; french fries; the cashews I ate the other night–could be dusted in flour just before being stuffed in the package. Why? Because we live in America, and we like everything to look pretty. Goodness forbid that two pieces of chocolate stick together.
About a month ago, I was at dinner at my dear friend Francoise’s. She went to great lengths to cook me a gluten-free meal, including using different cutting boards for the bread and salad. All so I wouldn’t grow sick. At the end of the meal, she offered me some chocolate-covered espresso beans from Starbucks. I was prepared. I read the label. They listed tapioca dextrin, instead of just maltodextrin. (Whatever the heck dextrin is, sometimes it can be made of wheat.) Everything seemed copacetic. I ate two. Half an hour later, at her daughter’s piano concert, I felt that now-familiar feeling. Headache. Flush. Full stomach. Overwhelming sleepiness. I rushed home for the inevitable two days of feeling lousy.
And I suffered for two days because of the infintesimal amount of wheat that had been dusted on two chocolate-covered espresso beans.
You see how insidioius this can be?
So that’s the story of gluten. It’s microscopic and elastic. It’s hard to see and more powerful than I ever thought possible. There’s a real power, for me, in knowing just what it is, and how to avoid it. As I have written in here, almost every day, I have never felt better in my entire life than I do today.
Still, living this way is a detective job. Where’s my film noir lighting?