Just what is gluten, anyway?

Farm Forum

“Mom, this bread has gluten in it, doesn’t it? If you used rice flour, then it would have no gluten, right?” my 11-year-old daughter asked as we began baking wheat bread on a Saturday morning.

“Yes, wheat has gluten and rice does not. We couldn’t swap rice flour in this recipe because we need the gluten protein to give the bread structure. We would need a special recipe if we used rice flour; most of those recipes will have an added food gum,” I responded.

“I’m impressed. You were listening to my talk, weren’t you?” I added.

She nodded and continued measuring flour into a bowl. I’m not sure she listened to my entire kitchen lecture.

My daughter had just accompanied me to a conference during “parents switch places with your kids” day at school. I gave a talk about gluten, its functions and why we are hearing so much about gluten-free foods.

My husband was a sixth grader that day, so he had to run laps in gym class and do math problems. I think having our young daughter serve as my “personal assistant” and help me distribute papers and set up the room was a better deal.

“Does everyone have to eat ‘gluten-free’?” I asked. I wanted to see if she picked up on one of my main points.

“People with a disease have to be gluten-free,” she responded.

“You are thinking of celiac disease,” I noted.

I thought about some of the other things I mentioned in my presentation. An estimated 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. They must avoid gluten in all foods, as well as other gluten-containing items they might swallow, such as toothpaste, mouthwash or glue on an envelope.

People who are female, Caucasian and of European descent appear to have a greater risk of celiac disease. My daughter and I fit within the higher-risk group for celiac disease, but we do not have a genetic history of the disease. Gluten is not an issue for us, so we have no dietary restrictions.

People with celiac disease might experience one or more of 300 different symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, damage to their intestines and skin rashes.

People who are gluten-sensitive have similar symptoms but do not have the damage to their intestines. Issues with gluten must be diagnosed through medical testing with qualified professionals, not on your own. Visit the celiac disease website at for more information.

In August 2014, the Food and Drug Administration released its final rule on gluten-free labeling. The labeling is voluntary and may appear on any food product with less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds are not gluten free, so any foods containing these grains cannot be labeled gluten free.

My daughter walked over with a cup containing yeast dissolved in warm water.

“You can add the yeast now. Do you think yeast is alive?” I asked.

“You didn’t talk about yeast; you talked about gluten,” she responded. I think she was tired of my quizzing.

“Yeast is alive. It’s a tiny plant that becomes active with water and food from the carbohydrate in the dough, and it produces gas. Gluten is like the framework that holds the expanding dough during rising and baking,” I added.

I think my daughter had heard enough food science for the day, so she began paging through the recipe book we were using.

“Do you think we should make a different type of bread every weekend?” I asked.

“Yes! Let’s make bread every weekend!” she responded.

I know that she will hold me to it. I might be writing a few columns about our adventures in bread making in the coming year, based on her level of enthusiasm. I have a 3-inch book about bread making, so I might learn a few techniques in the next year, too.

We prepared the following recipe from a collection of bread recipes from the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, which I picked up at a conference. This bread recipe earned a senior-level 4-H’er first place.

The North Dakota Wheat Commission’s website at has a variety of recipes to try, too.

Prize-winning White Bread

1 c. milk

2 Tbsp. sugar

2 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. butter or shortening

2 packages active, dry yeast

1/2 c. warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

2 large eggs

5 1/2 to 6 c. all-purpose flour

Scald milk (heat until small bubbles appear; do not boil). Stir in sugar, salt and shortening. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast on warm water; stir to dissolve. Add yeast, eggs and 2 3/4 cups of flour to milk mixture. Beat until batter is smooth, about two minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Add enough flour, a little at a time, to make dough that leaves the side of the bowl. Turn onto a lightly floured board, cover and let rest 10 minutes. Knead until smooth and elastic, eight to 10 minutes. Place in a lightly greased bowl and turn to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about an hour to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down, cover and let rise until almost doubled, about 30 minutes. Divide dough in half, shape into loaves and place in two greased 9- by 5- by 3-inch bread pans. Cover and let rise in a warm place until dough reaches the top of the pan on all sides, fills corners and the tops are rounded above the pan. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. (Keep an eye on the bread; the baking time may vary with your oven.) Place the loaves of bread on wire racks and cool away from drafts.

Makes two loaves. When cut into 12 slices, each slice has 140 calories, 2 grams (g) of fat, 26 g of carbohydrate, 4 g of protein, 1 g of fiber and 220 milligrams of sodium.