It seems gluten-free processed food is popping up everywhere.
It is estimated about 10% of us are now buying processed gluten-free food. Yet only about 1 in 70 of us has coeliac disease where the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten.
In this article, we want to look at why so many apparently healthy people, report feeling better on a gluten-free diet. Is gluten really the problem (it’s been around forever) or is ‘gluten-free’ another misguided ‘fad’ like the ones we’ve had in the past, such as ‘no butter’, ‘no eggs’, ‘no saturated fats’? I’ve researched this and some interesting facts have emerged.
First – what exactly is gluten?
Gluten is the main protein in wheat (actually two proteins – gliadin and glutenin) which combine to create a rubbery, elastic matrix in bread dough, that traps carbon dioxide from the fermenting yeast, allowing it to rise.
The old, slow way of raising flour, especially in bread making, was to use sourdough yeast and overnight rising. In this process, most of the gluten is broken down to sugars (predigested) during the fermentation process. Gluten digestion problems were never heard of back then, so what’s different now?
Fast rising yeast developed during World War II
During World War II, scientists developed yeast that didn’t need refrigeration and would rise much faster, cutting down baking time from overnight, to only 2 hours. Since the 1970’s, varieties of this fast-rising yeast are almost universally used in bread making. However, two hours doesn’t allow enough time for yeast to fully digest the gluten.
Nor do fast rising yeasts provide good texture and lasting qualities, so bakers overcome this problem by adding a lot more gluten which is chemically extracted from wheat flour. Gluten is supplied to bread factories in pallets of 25kg bags.
Chemical yeast enhancers and dough improvers are also used to further speed up rising, increase volume and soften texture. These include, ascorbic acid, ammonium chloride, amylase, phosphates, protease, hydrochloride (acidifier) and a preservative sodium metabisulphite.
Typical NZ bread recipe
Here is a typical NZ white supermarket bread recipe containing about 21 ingredients – (in descending order) wheat flour, water, maize flour, fast-rising yeast, soybean fibre, extra wheat gluten, vinegar, salt, guar gum, soybean flour, canola oil, lactic acid, tartaric acid, vegetable oil, five synthetic vitamins (B1, B3, B6, B9 and E), iron and zinc. Bread expert, Stephen Jones PhD comments
“Flour that is sliced and packed into plastic wrapping in less than three hours – that’s not bread.”
Nevertheless, adding extra gluten now appears to be universal practice in supermarket breads, and not only breads, most flour for general baking purposes has extra gluten added for better rising qualities.
The harm of processed gluten-free food
But is processed, gluten-free food healthy? Evidently not, as these foods need more fat and sugar added to make them palatable, which almost doubles the calories compared to similar non-gluten-free food. This explains why many people eating gluten-free processed food are complaining of weight gain.
Australian dietician, Melanie McGrice finds that her patients on a gluten-free diet tend to lack fibre, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and iron and have an unhealthy probiotic flora. She says,
“If you feel better on a gluten free diet, just eat whole, unprocessed foods – you will still feel better but be healthy also.”
Will a return to sourdough bread solve the gluten problem?
Rather than remove gluten-containing food from our diet, could a return to genuine sourdough or rewena bread be the answer? Renowned nutritional journalist Michael Pollan has stated
“I would bet that if you took a dozen people who claimed gluten intolerance and you gave them sourdough bread, they’d be fine.”
Many so called ‘sourdough’ breads, still use fast rising yeast and just have an acid added to sour the taste. Genuine sourdough has to be left to rise at least overnight to breakdown the gluten. Pollen adds “The long fermentation process allows bacteria to fully break down the carbohydrates and gluten in bread, making it easier to digest and releasing the nutrients within it, allowing our bodies to more easily absorb them.”
What else in bread can cause digestion problems?
Another reason for so called ‘gluten sensitivity’ is that wheat contains numerous food sugars (called FODMAPS) that are not well absorbed by our small intestine. When we lack the right probiotics to consume these sugars, they sit and ferment in our gut, causing gas and bloating (IBS symptoms) and gluten gets the blame. As a double benefit – the long fermentation of sourdough bread also largely pre-digests these sugars.