Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
Gluten is a protein complex in wheat, spelt, kamut, triticale, rye, and barley. Flours containing the complex provide a light and springy texture to breads, which is very popular with consumers. Some people are intolerant to gluten, however. This intolerance can produce some unpleasant and even dangerous effects in the body. Fortunately, many gluten-free flours are available today as well as substances that at least partially replace gluten's properties. I make and eat some baked goods that lack the complex. I've included one of my recipes for gluten-free muffins in this article.
One of the most serious results of gluten intolerance is celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. In people with this disease, components of gluten cause the body’s immune system to damage the intestinal villi. The villi are tiny projections on the lining of the small intestine that absorb digested food. People with celiac disease must completely avoid gluten in their diet, thereby allowing the villi to regrow. Continued ingestion of the complex increases the risk of other diseases, some of which are serious.
Gluten is found in most store-bought baked goods, though the number of products without the substance is increasing where I live. Gluten is frequently used as a food or cosmetic additive. Someone who is intolerant to the substance can still follow a healthy and delicious diet. They need to be very careful when choosing their foods and drinks as well as their medicines, toothpastes, and cosmetics, though.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet Necessary?
The gluten-free diet appears to be increasing in popularity. Most nutritionists seem to regard this increase as a fad, but a few suspect that gluten—or at least the relatively large amount of the substance found in some of today's grains or in some people's diet—may be responsible for more health problems than we realize. In the case of celiac disease and some other health problems diagnosed by a doctor, gluten has been medically acknowledged as a problem and must be avoided. In other people, the avoidance of the substance is controversial.
Reasons Why People Might Avoid Gluten
Some people decide to avoid gluten without a diagnosis of intolerance and experience renewed health, which is a great reason for avoiding the substance. The grains that contain gluten are otherwise healthy and nutritious, however, so it's a shame to avoid them unnecessarily. A person may find that they can tolerate one of the gluten-containing grains and not another. Wheat may be troublesome while rye may not be, for example.
Some people choose to eliminate a food or substance from their diet temporarily to see if a health problem improves. If it does, they may then eat the food again as a challenge to see if the health problem returns. If the problem does return, they conclude that they are intolerant to the food and eliminate it from their diet permanently. If someone reaches a stage where they decide to eliminate a healthy food from their diet, it would be a good idea to visit a doctor and a dietitian for advice.
Someone with a medically diagnosed intolerance to gluten must never follow a food challenge. Ingestion of the substance will further damage the villi in a person with celiac disease, for example, and will also increase the risk of other diseases, including osteoporosis and intestinal cancer.
Meats, fish, vegetables, legumes or pulses, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, and milk (if a person isn’t dairy-intolerant in addition to being gluten-intolerant) are good foods for a gluten-free diet. As soon as these foods are processed, packaged, canned, or preserved, though, gluten may be introduced as an additive. The ingredients in packaged and processed products should always be checked carefully. Even non-dairy milks may contain small quantities of gluten.
A person with an intolerance to gluten can still eat grains, as long as the grains don't contain the substance. Luckily, the number of gluten-free grains, flours, and baked products available in stores seems to be increasing in many areas. A few years ago, only specialized stores like health food markets sold gluten-free baked foods such as breads, cakes, cookies, and breakfast cereals; now even my local supermarkets are selling them.
One problem is that most of these foods contain refined grains, such as white rice, as well as a lot of sugar or fat and artificial additives. They also tend to be more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Making baked grain products at home can produce nutritious, less expensive, and often delicious results.
In Latin, the word gluten means "glue". Gluten acts as a binder in baked goods, preventing the final product from falling apart. It contains two proteins—gliadin and glutenin.
Guidelines for Baking
If you buy a flour from a manufacturer that also makes products that contain gluten, check that the flour is made in a separate facility to avoid contamination by the substance. When you buy gluten-free flours in stores, make sure that they are packaged instead of being located in bins, where the scoop may have been in contact with a grain that contains gluten.
In gluten-free baking, a combination of flours works best, since there in no one flour that is completely suitable as a replacement for wheat or other gluten-containing grains. There are a number of gluten-free flours that you can experiment with, depending on what is available and affordable in your area. Different flour combinations will give a different taste in the final product. Some companies sell flour mixes that are already prepared.
Gluten-Free Flour Examples
Flours from rice (preferably brown rice, since it is a whole grain and contains fiber), sorghum, quinoa (pronounced “keenwa”), buckwheat, teff, amaranth, millet, and tapioca are all gluten-free. Corn flour is gluten-free too. Oat flour is good, but it must be made from oats that are certified to be free of gluten. This is very important, since oats are often contaminated by gluten-containing grains as they grow or in the grain storage facility. People with celiac disease are sometimes sensitive to corn or even gluten-free oats, though.
Almond flour or meal and other nut and seed meals can be added to a flour mix to add nutrition and taste. Bean and pea flours, such as garbanzo, fava bean, and chickpea flours, are becoming popular. Potato flour and arrowroot are sometimes used in gluten-free recipes, too. They help to produce a light texture.
If you have celiac disease, even when you're using a flour made from a grain that doesn't contain gluten, you should make sure that the flour is certified to be free of the substance by an independent laboratory. Grains can be contaminated with other grains in the field, during storage, or during processing.
In gluten-free baking, xanthan gum or guar gum is often added to the flour mix to act as a binder. These work well, but some people experience digestive problems when they eat xanthan gum. Guar gum acts as a laxative when eaten in large quantities. Eggs will also bind ingredients together in a muffin recipe. This is my solution in the recipe below.
Gluten-Free Pumpkin Muffins
I don’t have celiac disease, but I do have food intolerances and digestive tract problems. I often find that my body handles gluten-free foods better than foods containing wheat or rye. I do eat muffins containing wheat at times, but too much wheat gives me heartburn and a sore stomach. My body “likes” gluten-free muffins.
Muffins are my favorite cake-like products to bake because they’re quick to make and can be produced in many different variations. Once a person begins experimenting with recipes, they'll find that many ingredients work well in muffins. It's important to note that gluten-free foods generally need to be baked at a lower temperature than foods containing gluten. The recipe below makes about twelve medium-sized, moist, and tasty muffins.
- 2 cups finely ground flour mix that is certified gluten-free (I like to use sorghum flour and millet flour in my mix)
- 2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup brown rice syrup
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
- 2 large eggs
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger together in a bowl.
- In a separate bowl, mix the pumpkin puree, apple sauce, brown rice syrup, buttermilk (or regular milk or gluten-free non-dairy milk), vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla extract together.
- Mix the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients together until just combined. Be careful not to overmix.
- Spoon the batter into paper cups in a muffin pan (or directly into the pan if it has a non-stick surface), filling each cup about 3/4 full.
- Bake for about 25 minutes (but check the muffins at 20 minutes).
- When the muffins are ready to remove from the oven, they‘ll spring back into shape when their tops are lightly pressed, and a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin will come out clean.
- Leave the hot muffins in the pan for about 5 minutes, then remove them and place them on a wire tray to finish cooling.
- Store the muffins in a small, airtight container, since gluten-free baked products can lose moisture quite quickly.
The spices can be left out of the recipe if you’d prefer to do this. I nearly always add spices to pumpkin puree and love the combination of flavors. Fortunately, spices in moderation cause no problems for my body. A pumpkin and spice combination is often associated with the fall, but I love it at any time of year, especially in muffins.
References and Resources
The websites mentioned in the references below give useful information about gluten-free grains and celiac disease.
- Information about the gluten-free diet from the Celiac Disease Foundation
- Facts about living a healthy gluten-free life from the Canadian Celiac Association
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton