Going gluten-free

[wide]gluten-free[/wide]That mild-mannered pile of flour on your pasta-making board could be evil. It probably contains the protein known as gluten, the “glue” that gives doughs their texture and elasticity and helps them rise to fluffiness. But a glue can be a danger. Although only 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, with its severe physical reaction to gluten, nearly a third of us — 29 percent — claim to be avoiding or planning to start cutting down on gluten, according to the NDP Group, a market-research company.

Reasons range from that celiac-disease diagnosis to a wheat allergy to wheat intolerance to just believing that wheat is so unhealthy for you that you feel better without it.

But giving it up is somewhat more complicated than leaving the bun off your burger, as gluten can lurk in many unexpected places. Plus, the prospect of a newly diagnosed intolerance of gluten, with no pizza, pasta, bread or cake ever again, is fairly earth-shaking. The majority of breads contain the wheat, rye and barley that contains gluten. So does beer, cereal and a lot of processed foods. Avoiding it is not an easy task, but a serious and necessary one for the person with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder of malabsorption, an abnormal immune-response reaction to gluten that inflames and damages the small intestine. Symptoms common in children include vomiting, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and constipation. Adults may have no symptoms at all, or feel fatigue, anxiety, depression, a blistering skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis, oral canker sores, missed periods, infertility, arthritis, bone or joint pain or seizures. It can lead to complications like intestinal cancer, liver disease, osteoporosis, anemia and malnutrition.

The symptoms of celiac disease can be confused with the manifestations of several other diseases. It can also remain dormant until an episode of stress, illness, pregnancy or childbirth triggers it.

Wheat allergy, one of the most common allergies of children and often outgrown, comes from an antibody to the proteins in wheat. Some of the symptoms include swelling of the face, coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, itchy watery eyes and skin rashes such as hives.

Out with the gluten

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Lauren Arcomano and Janet Villani Garratt. (Photo by Dion Ogust)
Lauren Arcomano and Janet Villani Garratt. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

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When I was first out there eating gluten-free, I found a lot of companies were just swapping white-rice flour for wheat flour,” said Lauren Arcomano, who altered her diet in an effort to address symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. “I wanted to keep baking with whole grains but without gluten.”

This yen for healthful baked goods led Arcomano and her friend Janet Villani Garratt to start Bearsville Bakers, which supplies gluten-free brownies, biscotti, scones, cookies, coffee cake, and other goodies to local farmstands and health-food stores. The expanding year-old business is meeting the needs of people who find a gluten-free diet helpful in treating food allergies, wheat sensitivity and celiac disease. Arcomano said her rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are much improved by the diet.

Garratt, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, waxed enthusiastic about the creative process of adapting recipes to meet the chemistry of gluten-free baking. “I’ll look at a recipe and think, Okay, what might work here? What can I substitute? It usually takes two tries — occasionally three or four.”

Gluten is a binding material that maintains the texture of wheat-based products, and it’s tricky to find a substitute that has the same “gluey” properties. White-rice flour works, but its nutritional value is low, while brown-rice flour has a gritty quality.

Another option is certified gluten-free whole oats. “Oats don’t have gluten, but a lot of people can’t eat them because of cross-contamination from growing in fields where wheat was grown,” explained Arcomano. “They are often processed in facilities that also process wheat.” Arcomano and Garratt grind their oats in-house to avoid contamination.

They sometimes use more expensive ingredients such as hazelnut and almond meals, ground millet, or flaxseed. Egg makes a good binder, but they have to avoid it in their vegan products, which many customers request.

Brownies are a little easier. “Cocoa has a non-wheat starch, so chocolate has a binding property,” Garratt noted.

Some of their products contain white sugar, which is cheaper than sweeteners such as agave, xylitol or stevia, which they buy for their sugar-free creations. Other vegan treats are made with vegan white sugar.