The Meaning of Gluten-Free

It’s in our processed flours, breads, pastas, cakes, and wheat-based foods…lurking within the average American diet virtually undetected for centuries: gluten. This little ingredient has caused quite a stir in the past few years, however, even earning itself a special seat among FDA food guidelines — so what is gluten, exactly? And why is it suddenly so important?

What Is “Gluten”?

The mysterious culprit in question is actually a type of protein found primarily in wheat, rye, barley, and various crossbreeds. Comprised of both gliadin and glutenin, our little protein serves as an elasticity agent in wheat goods once blended with liquid — in other words, affecting the chewiness and thickness of baked bread products.

In traditional flour baking, the dough is mixed for a period of time, allowing the glutenin and gliadin proteins break apart and produce gluten, which then traps any air bubbles in the mixture.

While gluten has been a naturally occurring protein in wheat since the dawn of pastoral agriculture, instances of Celiac sufferers and the necessity of gluten-free products didn’t arise until the 20th century, implying that both the advent of chemically-altered ingredients as well as networking via the Internet has triggered both a cause and an awareness of what we know as “gluten-free”.

The Innocent Origins of Bread

Ancestrally, wheat and grain has been a staple in the human diet for over 10,000 years, undergoing various stages of domestication from wild grain to crop alongside the evolution of modern man. More recently in its timeline, the cultivation of wheat and grain has endured major hybridization and unprecedented exposure to chemicals and toxins.

The humble beginnings of mass-produced wheat and bread products originated in the mid-19th century, when a fortuitous combination of famine, spoiled harvests in France and England, and the invention of chemical fertilizer sparked the United States’ involvement in the wheat and grain industry. Although corn was the preferred grain of choice for Americans at the time, this mass export and cultivation of wheat led to an irreversible relationship between the U.S. and bread products.

In the heat of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the century, the U.S. and Great Britain were the largest producers of bread in the world — but, ironically,  this bread was notoriously flavorless and/or tainted with metals like aluminum sulfate and phosphate. As quoted in Henry Mott’s 1880 study, titled “The Affect of Alum Upon the Human System When Used in Baking Powders“:

Alum exerts, especially in continued use, very injurious effects on the body, and exactly this method of adulteration is one of the most dangerous.

**For a wonderfully in-depth look into the history and relevance of bread around the world, check out The History of How Wheat Became Toxic here! **

The Rise of Gluten Toxicity 
By the time products like Wonder Bread appeared on grocery shelves (cir. 1927), mass produced wheat products were almost completely devoid of the nutrition they once held. Even the U.S. government was forced to acknowledge how un-nutritious its bread was, initiating the “Quiet Miracle” in 1941: a secret operation that injected Wonder Bread with the vitamins and minerals it lacked in order to combat lingering diseases among the poor.
The wholesome and traditional bread-making methods of our ancestors was written off as too time-consuming for the newly mechanical world; soon the quality, texture, and taste of bread was swiftly sacrificed for convenient, quick, and chemically enhanced food that we still know today.
A major component of this mechanical age came about in 1961 in the UK, revolutionizing the “hands off” approach to bread-making: The Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). Capitalizing on industrial mass manufacturing, low-protein domestic grain, and chemical additives, the CBP minimizes the fermentation process to a mere 3 1/2 hour run-time. Although astonishingly time efficient, the CBP employs a number of suspicious additives in order to achieve its speed: enzymes (irresponsibly labeled as “processing aids“, allergens, solid vegetable fat, chemical oxidants, and genetically modified yeast. Today, the CBP feeds 80% of the UK…and is strongly suspected to be linked to the increase in obesity and Celiac Disease as well.
Modern America has adopted similar recipes for our mass-produced bread, but instead of the CBP, the U.S. has chosen a process more compatible with its domestic grains: the conventional batch mixing method. Hot dog and hamburger buns, deli baguettes, tortillas in Mexican restaurants, and generic bread rolls are all created by this singular method, which has found its most lucrative market in frozen foods.
The rampant adulteration of bread-making methods, from modified ingredients to the unnaturally fast fermentation process, is an inarguable factor in the emergence of both wheat allergies and gluten intolerance among modern consumers.

Defining Gluten-Free 

Despite mounting cases of bread-related intolerance near the end of the 20th century, Celiac Disease wasn’t medically acknowledged by the U.S. government until August 2013. Before that year, clear-cut definitions and guidelines designed to monitor foods containing gluten were virtually nonexistent.

In August 2014, the FDA began enforcing the official “gluten-free” seal of approval to food products (served in both stores and restaurants) lacking:

  • an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten
  • an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten

The FDA consequently approved products like bottled spring water, fruits and vegetables, and eggs can also be labeled “gluten-free”, since they inherently don’t contain trace of gluten.

While the FDA took a decade to compile these criteria, the CSA (Celiac Support Association) wrote up a series of regulations of their own in 2004. To read their detailed list of gluten-free requirements in side-by-side comparison with the FDA’s as well as the FAO’s Codex Alimentarius, click here!

The Celiac Spectrum

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, Celiac Disease is “an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.” When gluten enters the digestive tract, the body launches an attack on the small intestine, causing painful symptoms including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue/weakness

1 in 100 people are affected by it worldwide, and thousands endure undiagnosed conditions of it, putting themselves at risk for long-term health complications. A person can also be diagnosed on a spectrum of gluten sensitivity, commonly referred to as “gluten intolerant”,  as well as suffer from a wheat allergy. Unfortunately there is no easy one-step method to test for gluten sensitivity; to confirm the condition, one must undergo a screening and some diagnostic tests with a medical professional. It’s recommended that anyone experiencing physical reactions after eating gluten products should diminish- if not completely eliminate -gluten from his/her diet.

Thankfully, a plethora of gluten-free products (and gluten alternatives) have been filling up grocery shelves in recent years. The best and healthiest option, however, involves researching your food (beware of non-bread products that contain gluten!), avoiding processed foods as much as possible, and sticking to local and organic food.