At SmartyPants, we’re all about simplifying health. In this series, we’re breaking down those healthy foods and phrases that are suddenly everywhere, to give you the five-minute scoop on why they’re all the rage.
Gluten. The granddaddy of all healthy buzzwords. You can find a “gluten-free” label on everything from baked goods, to bottled water, to strip clubs
. But what is gluten? Jimmy Kimmel
tackled this question back in 2014 and most people had no clue. Since then, the gluten-free craze has only gotten bigger.
If everybody’s doing it, should you do it too?
There are a multitude of conflicting opinions on the matter, but many are either light on logic, or too one-sided. Since we have nothing to gain from whether you eat gluten or not, we thought we’d try simplifying one of the hottest health topics of the 21st
WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is a family of proteins present in grains, including wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. When gluten is mixed with water it becomes sticky and glue-like (hence the name), and makes dough elastic. Ever seen someone stretching out a pizza? That’s gluten. Gluten also gives bread the ability to rise. Without gluten, the dough would rip and you’d be left with a pizza rock.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Many people can eat and digest gluten just fine, however for people with celiac disease, eating gluten can damage the small intestine and cause severe digestive issues. Celiac disease is relatively rare, however, affecting about 1% of the population.
So why are nearly a third of Americans avoiding gluten?
Some people who do not test positive for celiac disease may still react negatively to gluten. This condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity
or wheat intolerance.
BUT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN EATING BREAD FOR CENTURIES…
Evidence of bread baking dates all the way back to the 2nd
century BC. So why is it suddenly an issue? Because bread used to be made very differently.
The first breads, also known as sourdough breads, were made by simply adding water to flour and letting the mixture sit out for a couple of days. During this time, the wild yeasts, or, bacteria that are naturally present in the air, would combine with the flour and water and ferment the dough. The bacteria eat the sugars present in grain and excrete CO2 gas, causing the bread to rise.
Research shows that this fermentation process also breaks down the gluten in the bread.
But, as you can see, bread made the old-fashioned way takes patience and time – two things we humans have grown increasingly short on. We want more, faster, and we’re incredibly good at getting what we want.
Several modern inventions including the development of fast-acting yeast, high-energy mixing processes, and chemical additives have dramatically reduced the amount of time needed to crank out a loaf of bread. Today, a batch of bread can be mixed, risen, and baked in a matter of hours. "Most of the bread you find at grocery stores goes from flour to plastic-wrap in three hours or less," says Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder who is the director of the Washington State University Research Center.
By using chemicals and additives instead of fermentation, the gluten is no longer broken down, and, according to some experts
, this makes modern bread harder to digest.
SHOULD YOU GO GLUTEN-FREE?
If you think you might be gluten-sensitive, why not give it a try? Remove gluten from your diet (for at least three weeks) and then reintroduce it and see how you feel.
If you find that you tolerate gluten, then there’s no need to cut it out or replace it with costly gluten-free alternatives that can be filled with multiple additives and fillers. Instead, we recommend that you simply eat high-quality bread whenever possible, such as those made from organic, 100% whole grains, or, better yet, a traditionally prepared sourdough bread.
If you’re dying to know more about sourdough, the healthiest kinds of bread, and how to pick one, we’ve got you covered.
All About Sourdough
What’s the Healthiest Kind of Bread?