Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

February 11, 2016
Is gluten a blessing or a curse?

I’m a lousy test study for marketing research. I tend to be a late adopter, so what other people have been doing for a while, I get into the game quite late. Heck, I literally did not visit a McDonald’s until I was 19 (yes, they had been in existence for some time before then). It was well into the game before I started making use of the internet, and that was only because my work at the time required that I do so.

Like you, I’ve seen several brands come into existence over the years. I remember the first time I came across a Walmart a long time ago in a rural area in the Southeast and thinking, “what kind of strange store is this?” I thought it was a local or regional chain, and wasn’t something that I’d ever see in my native Arizona. Wrong.

Remember Starbucks coming along? It’s grown from a local business in Seattle to an international company with market clout. It was started after the founders saw that coffee drinking was a social experience in Europe and much more than a beverage purchase.

What is interesting to me is that startup companies that go in a new direction and gain traction get a lot of positive attention as this new “grassroots” business gets going and is different from “the establishment.” Then, a funny thing happens. If it becomes successful and mainstream, it can become a target and lamented as “big business” and having too much market share and influence.

This has happened with Walmart, Starbucks, Google, Microsoft and a whole host of other entities.

You may be thinking, “I thought this is a gardening column, why are we talking about all this?” You’re right. What I’ve said so far lays the foundation for one of the most successful, and targeted foodstuffs in the history of mankind — cereal grains.

Just to be clear, cereal grains are not the product of Kellogg’s or Post or Malt-O-Meal — although they use them. In actuality, cereal grains are from the botanical family ‘Poaceae’ include well-known grains such as wheat, oats, rice, and corn. This classification also includes some lesser known or utilized grains such barley, sorghum, rye, and millet.

True cereal grains are from the grass family, and are also known as grain crops. Recently, the top five cereals in the world ranked on the basis of production are corn (aka maize), rice, wheat, barley and sorghum. Obviously, people are not the only consumers of these products, with a large amount of grains going into animal feeds, and the source of other products.

One of the most sought-after products in the culinary world is wheat. Its processing and baking characteristics, along with its distinctive taste has made it extremely popular. Its popularity is further extended because of the varieties of wheat that can be used for pasta production, as well as “common” and artisan breads. Add in biscuits, rolls, pancakes, dumplings, noodles and a whole host of culinary desirables and it’s not hard to understand the success of wheat.

One of the reasons that wheat is so popular is its gluten content. Gluten is what gives wheat flour-based doughs their cohesiveness and elasticity. Anyone that has prepared a pizza dough from scratch knows firsthand the persistence it requires to coax a lump of dough into a sizable and reasonably thin creation. As the dough is stretched out, it tends to shrink back. This is gluten in action. This same elasticity in turn affects the chewiness of baked wheat flour products.

Likewise in pancakes and cornbread, the flour increases the viscosity of the batter and makes it not flow so easily and helps it suspend other contents in the batter instead of having them separate out.

What is gluten actually? Warning: geek alert — technical information ahead. Gluten is the term used for the proteins found in cereal grain. It’s found in the grain’s endosperm. All cereal grains start off as whole grains — the entire kernel of a plant. The seed itself is comprised of three edible parts — the bran (the nutrient rich outer skin of the grain), the germ (the embryo — from which a new plant can sprout), and the endosperm. The endosperm is the largest portion of a grain of wheat, and is what is left when wheat is processed to make white bleached flour. The endosperm is the energy source for the sprouted germ until roots and leaves form and the plant functions on its own. Endosperm is nutrient rich, and for most, highly edible. Gluten is the proteins found in grain endosperm — namely gliadin and glutenin (I warned you about the geek part).

Wheat is not the only cereal grain that contains gluten. Others include barley, bulgur, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Oats don’t contain gluten by themselves, but are commonly processed along with other gluten-containing grains, so can readily end up with gluten content.

With the success of wheat and its common use, especially in the Western diet, there’s bound to be some downsides. And there are.

First, as a carbohydrate, it can readily be over-consumed and lead to weight gain. Highly processed wheat, such as white bleached flour, can affect how fast the body processes flour-laden items, leading to spikes in blood sugar. Generally speaking, the more processed a food is, the less work our bodies have to do, and the faster the ingredients of the food enter — and leave — our blood streams and intestinal tract. This is all related to the Glycemic Index — but, hey! This is a gardening column, not a medical journal.

Secondly, there is a growing population that is becoming allergic to wheat, or if not allergic, don’t feel well after eating it. For those seriously affected, there’s celiac disease. As many as one in 140 people have celiac disease, although it may be higher as it’s believed that many people go undiagnosed. This malady is an immune system response to gluten that causes a great deal of pain as it does damage to the small intestine. Not good.

So, is gluten a blessing? Or, is it a curse? Both. There’s a reason that wheat has become such a strong staple. For those of us that bake well or have people in our lives that do, having fresh baked goods is a smile from Heaven. There’s a long list of delectable dishes that depend heavily on the use of wheat flour, and eaten in moderation, they can be highly additive to our lives. On the other hand, for those of us that are sensitive or downright allergic to wheat products or have the highly-impairing celiac disease, wheat can be a curse. The best treatment for these conditions is avoidance of eating them and finding other tasty alternatives and expanding the amount of dishes that don’t depend on wheat flour.

I must confess I feel a bit hypocritical as I write this. There is the aroma of fresh bread baking right now as Maggie makes her twice a week batch of oatmeal honey bread. I don’t suffer from gluten difficulties, so I’ll enjoy a slice… or three, in a bit. I feel guilty — but not enough to pass us a warm slice of fresh bread with a light skim of salty butter. Enough said.

Remember, the Annual Garden Tour will be here before you know it. Mark your calendar now — for Saturday, June 11. The event Organizational Committee is accepting nominations now for both the 2016 and 2017 Tours. You can nominate someone else, or yourself. Please get in touch with me if you know a worthy candidate. My email address is shown just below.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his web channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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