In cooking, the process of clarification entails straining out extraneous muck from liquids so that they might be pure, clear and ideal for consumption. With this series on food terminology we're attempting to do the same.
The word “gluten” is being bandied about quite a bit lately on our site and in the news.
We mentioned gluten heavily in our explainer on high fructose corn syrup; commenters kvetched about restaurants’ insensitivity to issues surrounding it in a recent lunchtime poll; Gwyneth Paltrow publicly nixed it from her diet; and there are slews of cookbooks and product lines that come out every day to cater to those living a "gluten-free" lifestyle.
Such attention doesn't go without merit. A recent study indicates that one out of 133 people in the United States is affected by Celiac disease or gluten intolerance – and that number continues to grow steadily.
Chatter about gluten is clearly on the rise - so what exactly is it?
These natural proteins, gliadin and glutenin, are non-water-soluble and they’re the ones that essentially achieve leavening. The molecules trap carbon dioxide gas in the dough, so all those tiny holes, sponge or “bubbles” you see in that loaf – yup, that’s the gluten. It's used in bread baking because the elasticity of its protein structure gives cohesiveness and structure to dough.
Unfortunately, it also brings gastric misery to people with gluten intolerance - also called Celiac disease, Coeliac, Coeliac Sprue Disease and gluten enteropathy - which is a far cry from a run-of-the-mill wheat allergy.
A wheat allergy is like any standard allergy. Depending on its severity, reactions can be similar to what a sufferer might have to animal dander or shellfish - hives or nausea.
Celiac disease on the contrary, is an autoimmune disorder with intense gastrointestinal symptoms - like cramping and bloating - among others. When people with Celiac disease eat foods with gluten, it damages the villi of the small intestine wall - thus, preventing basic nutrients of food from being absorbed.
Simply avoiding bread doesn't do much good. Gluten pops up in surprising places, including soy sauce, sausage, lunchmeat, some instant coffee, soups, sauces and even Communion wafers. Sufferers often need to go to extreme measure to avoid encountering it - hence the uptick in gluten-free products, cookbooks and restaurants.
If Celiac disease is left untreated - that is to say, if gluten is still consumed - it can go so far as to cause anemia, gall bladder failure or osteoporosis.
While much has become known about this disease in recent years, much remains a mystery - including the cause.
Previously - What is high fructose corn syrup?
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