Why is gluten hidden in so many things?

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Previously published on 100% Gluten Free

Supermarket shelves in Auckland Central

It’s no easy task finding mainstream products that are gluten free

This question was sent in by one of the subscribers to my factsheet, and I thought the answer was interesting enough for a blog post. So here it is.

Question: Why is gluten hidden in so many things?

Bottom line: gluten is added to food products because it’s cheap.

Wheat and its products are added to many foods that you wouldn’t expect because it’s usually readily available, and because of that it is cheap. This particularly applies in the US, of course, where wheat is heavily subsidized, and has been for many years (the estimated US wheat subsidy in 2010 was $1,744,199,117). On top of this, it has many functions (most of which can be duplicated by other, more expensive products).

Wheat and its products are very versatile. Breadcrumbs are a great addition to burgers, sausages, wieners (frankfurters in the UK) and other products made from ground meat, not just to bulk them up but to help them stick together. Toasted breadcrumbs make a great basic coating.

Flour is used to make batter for coatings, and also to thicken and to stick stuff together – and to stop stuff sticking together in packets, to make dumplings, bread, cakes, cookies, pastry, pizza dough and pasta. Another very useful function from a food manufacturer’s point of view is its ability not only to hide fat content in liquids, but also to replace fat in foods like low fat yogurt which would otherwise be unacceptably watery.

Refined gluten (called seitan) is also used to make various products fairly recently introduced to the West, such as fake seafood – “crab” sticks and so on. [Get thee behind me, seitan :)]

Then, there’s barley. This is used in some soft drinks such as barley water, as an ingredient in stews and Scotch broth, and to make malt, used in malt vinegar and a whole range of products from Mars bars and Maltesers to beverages to canned goods. (Malt is also sometimes made from wheat, but this is uncommon. Another type of malt can be made from rice, and this is safe for us but not readily available, and pricey even if you can find it.)

Finally, the other main source of gluten is rye, not used a great deal, but it can be found in products like whiskey, rye bread, and also some types of crispbread (I’m not sure if this term is used in the US. I found a definition “a thin hard cracker made from rye or wheat”, which covers it pretty well, but omits the fact that they are generally rectangular with big dimples in them and are often used by slimmers, though the dimples tend to make you use far more butter than you would on regular bread).

There are other grains that contain gluten, including spelt, but these are not used so much in food production at the moment, though their time may come.

I hope this explains why gluten is so commonly found in the ingredients list for so many of the products on your local store’s shelves.

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