Gluten: it’s that stuff in bread

Jordan Schmuckler/The Captain's Log

Jordan Schmuckler/The Captain’s Log

What is gluten? Well, according to Google, it is “a substance present in cereal grains, [especially] wheat, that is responsible for the elastic texture of dough. A mixture of two proteins, it causes illness in people with celiac disease.” That’s pretty straight forward, I suppose, but it leads to another question – why do we care?

Christopher Newport University alumnus, Holly Clegg, is on a gluten-free diet. Basically, she can’t digest it at all. Food containing gluten will give her migraines, stomach cramps and make her sluggish. She doesn’t even have the most severe version of celiac disease, though. People with this affliction may not be able to touch food containing gluten without a severe allergic reaction. The only cure for this condition is maintaining a gluten-free diet. This translates into no wheat, barley or rye products, and wheat flour seems to be a product that is in almost every processed food in the country.

It should be good that grocery store shelves are teeming with “gluten-free” labels now, right? When asked about those products, Clegg made a face. Apparently, a few people are under the misconception that the gluten-free diet is just another weight-loss fad. “[Those products are] good for me because my body can’t tolerate gluten,” said Clegg.

Clegg pointed out that having a gluten allergy is not just a health issue. It can also be a social issue. She often feels “isolated when socializing” because get-togethers often center around food. Physically, she’s much better without gluten in her life, but sometimes a girl just wants good sushi without worrying about being completely ruined by it later.

Fortunately, gluten-free products are regulated now so most products labeled “certified gluten-free” should be safe for those who suffer from celiac disease. The best recourse, though, is to just avoid processed foods altogether.

Clegg and Shelby Crouse, a CNU senior with a very mild gluten allergy, both agreed that cooking at home is the best way to go. They avoid all grains except rice, corn, and quinoa, so their options aren’t actually all that limited. Clegg said that it is sometimes “very annoying,” but it’s “not hard, just time consuming” to cook for herself.

The difficulty is when they go out to eat. Crouse called it “interesting,” while Clegg asserted that there’s a much bigger risk for cross-contamination. “If a dish is used to make pizza, then used to make my meal, I get sick.”

Luckily, with the upsurge of gluten allergies, an increase of awareness has resulted in many restaurants, like Red Robin, Cheeseburger in Paradise, Outback, and Jason’s Deli, offering gluten-free menus. “Even if there isn’t a separate menu, many places have gluten-free options if you ask for them,” Crouse said.

Alexandra Procopi who runs the Owl Branch Bakery, and a CNU grad student working on her thesis for environmental science, wants “to show all people with dietary restrictions that they can have something sweet.” She started by making vegan baked goods and has branched out to encompass any number of dietary restrictions. Instead of wheat or rye flour, she uses quinoa, rice, flaxseed, or almond flour. She also uses coconut flour for Paleo-dieters. It’s important to her to have many options because there are so many different allergies out there.

No one should assume her gluten-free products are “hard, tasteless bricks,” which is a common problem among products using wheat flour alternatives. The biggest difference between gluten and gluten-free ingredients is not the flavor but the texture. Procopi has adapted her recipes so the texture comes out more brownie-like, which isn’t really a bad thing in cupcakes and cookies.

It’s important to remember that the “gluten-free” label is not necessarily equivalent to “healthy” and that having celiac disease does not mean the end of cupcakes, cookies and bread. There are lots of options out there now and a growing number of people, like Procopi, are trying to bring celiac sufferers back into the realm of sweets.

Furthermore, since gluten has become a common allergy, the dining facilities on campus provide quite a few items that are gluten-free.  The Discovery Grille has gluten-free buns for instance, and the Commons and Regattas provide gluten-free entrees and side dishes every day.  Be advised, however, that if you have a severe form of celiac disease, establishments that serve a large number of people at once, like cafeterias and restaurants, are more at risk for accidental cross-contamination, especially during busy times.

Look for the Owl Branch Bakery at the CNU Farmers’ Market on Thursdays from 3:00-6:00 pm.