To borrow a phrase, gluten-free is YUGE! Less than 18 months ago, the gluten-free market passed 23 billion (yes, billion with a “B”) in annual sales. Just four years earlier, that market stood at just over 11 billion dollars per year. That is a growth rate any hedge fund manager would salivate over.
And all this originated because gluten can give you a case of shpilkis in your genechtagazoink. For those with a true type of immunologic reaction to ingestion of gluten, known as celiac disease, the incidence seems to be holding to its historic precedent; about 1% of the population. There is perhaps another roughly 6% of the population that may suffer from some form of gluten intolerance. That means for over 90% of the population, their genechtagazoinks are able to function completely unencumbered. Yet given those numbers, over 30% of adults in the US strive to avoid gluten in the pursuit of better health.
And that pursuit is no free ride (it rarely, if in fact ever, is). Gluten-free foods can be significantly costlier than their wheat-ier contemporaries.
That extra expense and loss of the heady bready aroma and texture of such baked goods might be justified in light of healthful outcomes. But alas; Zut alors! Gluten-free options are often not only more expensive, but may be worse for overall health. They often contain many additional artificial flavors, additives, stabilizers and the like.
Additionally, their base constituents may be corn or rice flour. That is whole other loaf for another day on GMO corn and arsenic in rice flour.
Suffice to say, however, if we know what gluten is; then it becomes much easier to make an informed decision. Because we are then actually informed.
Although we tend to think of wheat and its related products as carbs (and rightly so), they also contain proteins. Certain species, among them wheat, rye, triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid), spelt, and barley; contain the proteins that can produce gluten.
It is these collections of proteins that make such cereals ideal for bread making. The dough depends on the quality and the quantity of these proteins; and two in particular: gliadin and glutenin. Both are what are known as prolamin-type seed storage proteins. They are different between the different cereals, and thus yield different types of glutens. This is much the same way a Fiat and a Ferrari are different cars. They are both cars with the same basic construction of parts, but the details of those parts and how they are assembled yield very different beasts; or in the case of cereal grains, different breads.
In fact, the gliadin and glutenin can vary between different species of wheat so that the bread produced from a dough made from an ancient grain like durum wheat can be significantly different from a bread produced from modern bread wheat; even though they both come from wheat. Ford manufactured a F-250 four-wheel drive truck and the self-immolating Pinto.
Gliadins are smaller proteins known as monomers and come in four types; alpha (α), beta (β), gamma (γ), and omega (ω). Gliadins contribute to the viscosity of bread dough. Glutenins are large protein molecules known as polymers and are divided into low molecular weight (LMW) or high molecular weight (HMW). Glutenins have the ability to form some of the largest and most complex protein polymers in nature; HMW glutenins may have molecular weights in excess of 10 million. Glutenins contribute to the elasticity of bread dough.
In flour, these protein molecules remain separated. When water is added and the dough is kneaded, gliadin molecules and glutenin molecules begin to cross link together through disulfide, ionic and hydrogen bonds. They line up together like an old barrel of monkeys. None of this occurs before water is added to the mix. It is why you can work your pie or biscuit dough with the shortening (butter or lard) without fear of it getting tough. Once the water is added manipulation is kept to a minimum or lots of gluten will develop and render it chewy. Chewy is great for bread, but lousy for pies!
The different glutenin and gliadins from the different varieties and species of cereals will yield different glutens. These different glutens have varying properties. It is why a loaf of rye bread is different from a loaf of Wonder. Flour mixes reflect this; cake flour is low-protein so there is less gluten formed and the cake is tender. Bread flour is the exact opposite; rich in protein and thus glutenins and gliadins for chewy, flavorful artisanal loaves.
Ancient grains produce gluten distinctly different than modern bread wheat, which accounts for 90-95% of the wheat based products available on US shelves today. The differences are discussed in detail in The Fallacy of The Calorie (for those looking for further reading). Suffice to say, you may not have to spend more to get less gluten. You may merely need to go, Old School!