‘Gluten’ has been a buzz word off late. If you read through a recipe these days it is highly likely that there is a line which suggests if it is gluten free or not. Earlier going gluten free was often associated with fad diets and only a diet, gourmet food stores catered to, however since the pandemic struck, people are rethinking food choices and now there is a genuine interest to know all about gluten. This is further confirmed by Google trends, which tell us that the number of internet users who have typed in ‘What is gluten? ’ has doubled in India, since 2019 as compared to 2016.
It is obvious there’s a lot of interest in the word which constantly reminds one of glue.
So, let’s start with the basics, what is gluten?
Gluten translated from Latin means ‘glue’. It is a collection of proteins found in all varieties of wheat, rye, and barley.
The endosperm of wheat/rye and barley kernel grain contain two proteins; glutenin and gliadin, and when water is added to ground form of the grain, glutenin and gliadin bond together to form “an elastic network of proteins” called gluten.
Gluten is a natural binder, makes food springy and complements the working of yeast and this makes it the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the food industry and of households across the globe. In India, the majority of traditional flatbreads are made with wheat and various refined forms of it.
This begs the question then, how come ‘gluten’ is getting a lot of bad press lately?
Well, firstly it is 2021, and food processing has been around for almost a century in the first world and for decades in India. We live in a post-economic reforms India, which has led to the diversification of our diets and the flourishing of supermarkets, convenience foods, and fast foods outlets. Today, there is a global influence on our plates and it is no longer India where families went to the neighborhood mill to get their monthly quota of cereals ground.
Secondly, the most popular snacks in India aren’t pakodas anymore but the more convenient and packaged; biscuits, cookies, bread, cakes, bakery foods, and instant noodles. A majority of these foods are made with refined wheat flour/ Maida; well it does not just stop there.
There is also extra gluten added to these foods especially bread which is treated with formaldehyde (a known human carcinogenic), and a host of other ingredients like chemical dough conditioners, colorings, preservatives, and emulsifiers. So, if your diet contains a whole lot of processed food, you are definitely eating more gluten than your ancestors ate.
Furthermore, to increase the yield and cost of the crop; the modern varieties of wheat are mostly bleached and stripped of their nutrients to create flour which is great for making soft long-shelf-life bread. As a consequence when you eat an abundance of processed foods you are eating large quantities of highly unnatural food.
Thirdly, there is the inflammatory nature of gluten.
The degree to which it is harmful to an individual depends on the health conditions one suffers from. If you are eating a traditional Indian diet with just a little bit of processed foods it generally should not pose a problem. However, gluten’s inflammatory effect is mostly seen in people who suffer from chronic pain and autoimmune conditions. Gluten exaggerates the pain and other symptoms in people with various autoimmune ailments.
Finally, since gluten is a cheap preservative and helps extend the shelf life of food. As a result, it is present even in processed foods which traditionally it would not be present in. For example, some brands of long-life Indian sweets like ladoo’s, rasagulla’s contain wheat starch or maida in it.
Gluten rears its head everywhere there is processed and packaged food. Now that we know what and how gluten affects us, how does one lower their intake of gluten?
- By consuming freshly cooked meals and only occasionally eating packaged and highly processed food.
- Learning to cook and bake more meals made from scratch and by encouraging everyone to fix meals in the household irrespective of gender and age. Teaching younger family members and children the benefits of various ingredients and nutrition.
- Find a trustworthy and preferably certified organic brand of ingredients.
- Read food labels to make an informed choice about various foods.
- By introducing more ancient grains. “Ancients grains” refers to grains
that have been planted and cultivated the same way for thousands of years with any exploitation by modern man. They tend to have more fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals than modern wheat. The ancients grains we have access to in India are the ancient varieties of wheat like Emmer or known as Khapli in India. Einkorn and Khorasan ( Kamut is a brand and alternate name for this wheat) are also ancient varieties of wheat but not easily available in India.
- The other ancient grains which can be included easily in one’s meals are Millets, Sorghum, Barley, and pseudocereals like Amaranth ( Ramdana), Quinoa, and Buckwheat.
- Before you embark on making better food choices it is best to be armed with information. Since we already looked at how to reduce one’s gluten intake, let’s understand the different names of gluten and who should absolutely be off gluten i.e. go gluten-free.
The different names and forms of gluten -
- Wheat Flour – what you get when whole wheat kernels are ground into flour.
- Maida – Refined wheat flour, here only the endosperm of the wheat kernel is ground, it is stripped of the wheat germ and bran.
- Durum Wheat – A modern variety of wheat used to make pasta and noodles.
- Semolina – a coarser form of durum wheat otherwise known in India as Sooji or Rava.
- Rye – a crop mostly grown in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It also has lower gluten content than Wheat.
- Barley – Just like Rye it has lower gluten content than Wheat.
- Spelt – Italians refer to it as Farro and in Germany, it is known as Dinkel.
Gluten-Free = Wheat-Free
Not the other way around
Wheat Free means only products without wheat in them but it could still have different forms of barley or rye in it.
Gluten Free Grains and pseudo grains
- Millets – Ragi, Bajra and all little millets
- Sorghum (Jowar )
- Quinoa ( pronounced Keen-Wa)
- Amaranth ( Ramdana )
- Buckwheat ( Kuttu)
- All varieties of rice
- Oats *
All nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, lentils in their natural form are gluten-free.
*If oats is harvested and processed in a manufacturing facility along side wheat then there is a high possibility it will have trace elements of wheat. Be careful if you are Celiac to choose a safe brand of Oats and make sure you know about the manufacturing processes followed.
Who needs to stay off gluten or eat gluten-free?
- Those who suffer from the autoimmune condition Celiac/Coeliac disease. People with Celiac disease cannot digest gluten as it perforates the small intestine. Only a medical doctor can give a diagnosis for it. The diagnosis involves a blood test , to further confirm it an endoscopy and biopsy is performed . At present adhering to a strict gluten free diet is the only known cure to keep Celiac disease under control.
- Those who suffer from wheat allergy, it is similar to any other food allergy.
- Those who suffer from Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, may experience similar symptoms to those with Celiac Disease but it does not affect their internal organs.
- People who suffer from various digestive diseases and related problems .
- Those who suffer from various non-celiac autoimmune conditions and are medically advised to be gluten free diet.
- Those on the Autism Spectrum if advised by Doctors.
Here’s hoping that since you know all about gluten, it helps you make better-informed food choices.