People talk about gluten a lot, but the first thing you’re going to want the answer to is “what is gluten?” Gluten (from the Latin word gluten meaning “glue”) is made up of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. These proteins are in the endosperms of wheat, rye, and barley.
Similar proteins are in corn (corn gluten) and oats (avenins). Those proteins are tolerated by most people with Celiac Disease. However, most oats are processed in areas where they can be contaminated with gluten, so watch for oats labeled “gluten-free.”
Gluten, when dried and milled to powder and added to ordinary flour dough, improves rising and increases the bread’s structure and chewiness. When cooked in broth, gluten absorbs some of the surrounding liquid (including the taste) and becomes firm to the bite. That’s why it’s widely used in vegetarian, vegan and Buddhist cuisines.
Gluten is also used as a stabilizing agent in products like makeup, ice cream, lunch meats, and condiments, where it may be unexpected. This presents a problem because the hidden gluten is a major hazard for people with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. In the United States, gluten might not be listed on the labels of these foods, because the U.S Food and Drug Administration has classified gluten as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).
Feature photo by Flickr user jeffreyw