So, what is gluten? Where does it come from?
Gluten is a complex, natural protein found in all wheat species as well as rye and barley. Wheat has been a staple grain for millenia and is the basic ingredient of pasta, breads, most cereals, etc.. If you have a food that’s made from one of these grains as a component, it will have gluten, such as couscous, Matza, Bulgar, seitan, udon noodles, etc.. Wheat (or gluten) are also a hidden ingredient in many processed foods that we consume on a daily basis. And even if you’re using a “safe” grain such as oats, the oats may have been processed in a plant where they also processed wheat products, so there could be cross contamination there. Fortunately for most of us, those severe wheat allergic reactions are quite rare.
So, why gluten? What does it do? Gluten is a natural component of wheat flour, and it gives dough its light fluffy elastic nature, giving us light tender bread that keeps its shape well. Wheat starch is also a common thickener for soups, gravies, dressings and marinades, so wheat products can sneak in where you least expect it.
Seitan is a natural gluten high protein food — and if you can tolerate gluten, it’s ultra high protein can add a lot of nutrition to your vegetarian meals.
That being said, the interest in gluten free diets is growing. People who suspect they have gluten intolerance, Celiac Disease (a known severe intolerance to all wheat and gluten products), and even those who care for autistic family members, are strict in their avoidance of gluten free diets. Sometimes the indications of a gluten intolerance are subtle, here are some symptoms that may be caused by a gluten intolerance: acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, headaches, gassy digestion, bloating, fatigue. If you have some of these symptoms, it may be a good time to experiment with a gluten free diet to see if your feeling of well-being and energy improves. Check with your physician or nutritionist to see if they recommend that you try a gluten free diet for these and other symptoms.
For developing your own gluten free diet, it’s easy, nutritious and even delicious. Most whole fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and meats are gluten free. Many alternate grains are gluten free, such as millet, oats, rice, corn, quinoa, and soybeans. Quinoa, as a side note, is a valuable complete protein — it has all the essential amino acids to be fully digestible unlike many other grains or foods. Other foods such as bread, pasta, and cereals can be purchased as long as they are labeled as certified gluten free. When you see a certified food label, it also indicates that they are made in a food manufacturing plants where there are no other gluten-containing products made at that specific location. Other processed food labels “should” state the use of gluten but have to be read very carefully by the consumer, and watch for the related grain species which have different names but are also in the wheat family.
There may be great health benefits to starting and maintaining a gluten free diet. People who want to begin eating gluten free should consult their family physician. Your physician or nutritionist can also be a good resource for a gluten free foods list, and they can recommend other ways to incorporate healthy whole foods and grains that do not contain gluten into a daily diet.