Gluten is most often associated with wheat and wheat flour but can also found in barley, rye, and triticale — a wheat hybrid.
Gluten proteins in wheat flours make dough elastic and stretchy, and trap gas within baked goods, providing a light, airy structure. Spelt is closely related to wheat and is not suitable for use in gluten-free products. Additionally, gluten can be found in products made with these grains like salad dressing, sauces and even toothpaste.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all foods containing major allergens to be labeled. They also are working to establish gluten-free labeling standards for foods that contain no gluten or gluten at such a low level they have not been shown to produce a reaction. The proposed limit for glutenfree designation is 20 parts per million.
The best advice is to read the label carefully and contact the manufacturer if you are unsure about the gluten status of a food product. Keep in mind, however, that other gluten-containing grains, like barley and rye, are not required to be labeled, so “wheat-free” is not the same as “gluten-free.”
Baking without gluten (as found primarily in wheat flour) can be challenging because gluten contributes important properties to various types of baked products like cookies, cakes, pastries and breads. Gluten development is not as important for cookies as it is for cakes, so gluten-free flours can be substituted with similar results. Cakes and other types of batter-based products, like pancakes, need gluten for its gas-retaining ability that produces a light and airy interior structure and a tender crumb.
In addition to replacing the wheat flour with gluten-free flour, other additives can hold gas. These products include xanthan gum and guar gum that can be found in the baking or natural food section of the grocery store. Bread is perhaps the most challenging gluten-free baked product to make because gluten provides structure, creates a tender crumb, and retains gas. With experimentation and practice, a combination of gluten-free flours and gums can be used to create a loaf with good volume, softness and texture.
Although it is not a baked product, pasta is usually made from hard wheat flour. The gluten component not only gives structure to the noodles but also keeps the starch in the flour from leaching into the cooking water or becoming too sticky. These properties can be approximated with the use of gluten-free flours in combination with eggs and xanthan gum.
For more information on baking gluten-free products or following a gluten-free diet, see CSU Extension bulletin fact sheet 9.375, Gluten-free diet guide for People with Celiac Disease and fact sheet 9.376 Gluten Free Baking available at the CSU Extension in Archuleta County located at the fairgrounds on U.S. 84.