Gluten is the bogeyman of the 21st-century menu. More and more restaurants are offering gluten-free bread, pizza crusts, and pastas—but why? What is gluten? Why is it so bad for you?
Despite gluten’s connection with our favorite carbs, it’s actually a protein (or more specifically, a group of proteins) that appears in four specific cereal grains: wheat, barley, rye, and oats. The specific word “gluten” derives from the Latin word for glue. When flour is mixed with water, gluten allows the mixture to gain a sticky, glue-like consistency.
Stretch Out the Dough
Gluten proteins are very sticky and stretchy, and they give dough its bounciness, help it rise, and lend bread its beloved chewy texture. These characteristics also mean that chefs seek out gluten all across the food industry to use in bread, pastries, pastas, and beyond.
In recent years, gluten is also becoming a prominent meat alternative. For vegetarians, cooking wheat gluten in broth creates a firm dough that mimics the consistency beef, chicken, or pork. When the process is complete, you’ve got a mock meat called “seitan.”
The Gluten Question
But of course, the question on so many people’s minds is: Is gluten bad for you? In recent years, gluten-free diets have become all the rage, leading bread to become something of a controversial issue. So, should we avoid breadsticks and pizzas?
Well, as with so many questions, the answer is that it depends. Croissants, pastries, and breads definitely don’t work for everyone. Coeliac disease, which affects 1-2% of people, is an autoimmune disorder where the body treats gluten as a foreign invader and attacks it. For those with coeliac, eating regular breads and pastas can damage the wall of the gut, cause anemia and painful digestive issues, and increase the risk of contracting various diseases.
There is also something called “gluten-sensitivity,” which scientists believe may affect anywhere between 0.5-15% of people. While not as serious as coeliac disease, this intolerance can lead to diarrhea, stomach pain, tiredness, bloating, and depression.
However, this intolerance is not well-understood, and some experts claim that it isn’t even a real condition. Since the symptoms are so broad, a placebo effect could even contribute to the so-called benefits of a gluten-free diet.
Regardless, if you believe that your body does not tend to enjoy bread, pasta, and pizza, the best course of action is to see a doctor. Until then, there are still plenty of grains you can enjoy, like corn, rice, quinoa, flax, and buckwheat, and plenty of modifications you can make to your favorite foods.