Is gluten really bad for you? Well, really, that all depends. If you have a gluten sensitivity, or you have full-blown celiac sprue disease, you have a little problem there with the protein (gliadin and glutenin, to be specific) in all forms of wheat as well as barley and rye. You also have to avoid all of the products that contain them, or are processed with them (like lots of oats and oatmeal). Gluten, as you can see here, adds to the “stretchability” or pull of breads, cakes, etc. In fact, the term “shortening” means that you add fat to shorten the gluten strands that form, say in cake or pie crust, making it tender or flaky (instead of bouncy like a ball) as a result. This is also why baking gluten free can be quite a challenge (pile of dust/brick-like bread, anyone?).
Seems like gluten-free diets are all the rage, but how do you really know if you need to be on one? Well diagnosing the full-blown, real deal would involve a biopsy of your intestines, because celiac disease flattens out the normally enormously absorptive villi that form the intestinal mucosa — a fancy way of saying the inner walls of your intestines. Huh? I mean it flattens out the finger-like projections in your intestines (the villi) that provide all those football-field references regarding the absorptive area there. (Quick note: the majority of digestion and absorption occurs in the small intestine).
With gluten intolerance and celiac sprue, there are usually other signs of bodily unhappiness, and they usually involve bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other symptoms. Or there may be none, which makes matters somewhat confusing. A fine resource for the details: The Celiac Disease Foundation. If you have had lifelong, or sudden but recurring digestive issues, have a peek. You can experiment without all the medical intervention by going gluten free for a few weeks. If your symptoms disappear and then reappear when you go back to your usual diet, there you go.
Eating gluten free is not easy. It’s in a variety of things you wouldn’t suspect, ranging from soy sauce to beer. Getting a cookie or a bagel made without gluten-containing ingredients but not tasting like a flavorless rock often becomes a serious life goal.
So why the trend? Because people are becoming more aware, and it’s probable that people with lifelong digestive issues are finding that a gluten-free diet helps.
To that end, in L.A. there’s The Sensitive Baker in Culver City — a fabulous little place that is expensive but has gotten great reviews, including for the bagels, brownies, bread and cake we picked up for my gluten-sensitive mother-in-law (er, some of it freezes). Watch those business hours — they’re closed Saturdays and open only a few hours on Sunday on a sleepy little stretch featuring about FIVE bakeries (one of them owned by my cousin Melissa — so if you’re not gluten sensitive, send off your loved one and hit Essential Chocolate Desserts a few doors down. Shameless plug).
Another gluten-free haven is coming soon to Los Angeles, and is already a big deal in NYC: Babycakes. Check out their site; there are also recipes to try in their new book. Want to sample a couple? Check out this link.
And what if you aren’t gluten sensitive? Well, in service to you, you could go ahead and make your own seitan (pronounced like the nether-world reigning dude), or gluten balls (tastes/smells like chicken — why is that? — which is why vegetarians make stuff out of it).