August 1, 2014

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What is gluten-free?

By Diane Mincher

Lately, I’ve seen more and more foods labeled “gluten-free.” What exactly is gluten, anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It’s also in spelt, a type of wheat, as well as triticale, a cross between wheat and rye.

Some people -— estimates say one in every 133 people — have trouble digesting this particular protein. Gluten can damage the digestive tract, which results in poor nutrient absorption and can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Some common symptoms of gluten intolerance include gas, bloating, diarrhea, cramps, unexplained weight loss, anemia, fatigue or weakness. The condition, called celiac disease, varies in its severity.

Following a gluten-free diet isn’t as easy as avoiding bread, crackers, cereal and baked goods. Many processed foods may contain wheat, barley or rye, too, including beer, ale, lager, bouillon cubes, candy, potato chips, cold cuts and most cereals, unless labeled gluten-free.

French fries, rice mixes, flavored instant coffees, sauces, some processed and flavored cheeses, soy sauce, licorice, chocolate bars, self-basting turkeys, soups and vegetables in sauce are on the list, among others. Gluten also may be found in everyday products such as medicines, vitamins and lip balms.

Almost all gluten-free products now label their package as gluten-free or use a “GF” symbol. Reading ingredient labels on products is very important to make sure that that the item does not contain wheat, barley or rye.

Other foods or ingredients to avoid include bran, bread crumbs, bulgur, cereal extract, couscous, cracker meal, durum wheat, farina, graham flour, high-gluten flour, high-protein flour, semolina, spelt, vital gluten, vital wheat gluten, wheat bran, wheat germ, wheat gluten, malt, wheat starch and whole or enriched flour.

Baking without gluten can be challenging because gluten contributes important properties to various types of baked products like cookies, cakes, pastries and breads. Gluten-free cookbooks and online resources frequently offer gluten-free flour blend formulations for use in making cookies, cakes, quick breads and yeast breads. To bind and thicken gluten-free products, eggs and a starch-based product, such as guar gum and xanthan gum, are used.

If using these products, refrigerate all flours for freshness and quality, but bring to room temperature before measuring. Gluten-free baked goods can lose moisture and quality quickly. Wrap them tightly and store in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container to prevent dryness and staleness.

The gluten-free diet is a lifelong commitment and should not be started before consulting your doctor and being tested for celiac disease. Tests to confirm could be inaccurate if a person followed a gluten-free diet for a long period of time.

For more information, contact Diane Mincher, UVM Extension nutrition and food specialist, at (802) 388-4969, ext. 331, or (800) 956-1125 (within Vermont) or by e-mail at [email protected]

For a delicious, gluten-free recipes, visit  www.celiac.com, an online resource for celiac disease and gluten-free diet information.

— Diane Mincher is an Extension Nutrition and Food Specialist at the University of Vermont

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