When you’re on a gluten-free diet, it can feel like gluten is in everything and is everywhere. The first time I went grocery shopping after I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I realized a lot of foods that I was used to eating contained gluten. There are many gluten-free options available now, but gluten is still found in many food items. Here are 7 reasons gluten is in so many foods.
Gluten (Wheat) is a Commodity and is Therefore Cheap
Gluten serves a few purposes in foods (which we’ll cover in this post), but in some cases there are gluten-free alternatives than can replicate the texture and taste that gluten provides in food. Why is gluten used in those cases?
Gluten in the form of wheat is used in a lot of foods instead of gluten-free alternatives because it is a commodity and is therefore cheaper than other alternatives.
In economic terms, a commodity is a good (food, material, etc.) that can be bought and sold and is interchangeable with goods of the same type.
“Interchangeable” means that the market (those buying the commodities) treats the commodities as nearly equivalent to each other, regardless of the brand selling the commodity or where the commodity is produced.
With a commodity like wheat, which is highly available and sold by many producers, the only way for food producers to remain competitive is to sell it at a cheap price, so wheat and other commodities are cheap. Barley and Rye are the next most common sources of gluten in foods, and both may be considered commodities.
Because wheat is a commodity and is cheaper than gluten-free alternatives, like xanthan gum, potato starch, and rice flour, food producers will continue to use wheat in foods. A 2019 study found that gluten-free products cost 183% more than comparable wheat containing products.
Gluten Provides Elasticity and Structure to Food
Gluten proteins bind together such that gluten provides elasticity and structure to food. Wheat pizza dough is able to stretch and wheat bread is able to rise because they contain gluten. This elasticity and structure impact how the food turns out after baking.
Wheat bread rises because the gluten in the bread traps the gas that the yeast releases as it ferments. The pockets of trapped gas create the sponge-like structure of baked bread. Gluten-free bread has to rely on other ingredients, or a combination of other ingredients, to trap the yeast, but ultimately these other ingredients don’t provide as much structure and elasticity as gluten. Gluten-free bread is often smaller than wheat bread because gluten substitutes don’t trap gas from yeast as well as gluten does.
Using other ingredients in place of gluten also often means the gluten-free food is less elastic and more prone to fall apart. If you’ve ever tried to make gluten-free pizza crust, you’ll know that it’s prone to tear when you’re rolling it flat, whereas wheat pizza dough stretches. The lack of gluten also means the gluten-free pizza dough doesn’t rise as much (or at all), and virtually all gluten-free pizza crusts are thin crusts.
Gluten-free baked goods, especially breads and buns, are prone to fall apart after they’re baked because of their weaker structure. Every time I eat a burger with a gluten-free bun, I’m always reminded of the weaker structure of gluten-free food because there are crumbs everywhere (and I’m not a messy eater).
The structure of gluten also allows food to have a longer shelf life than foods that use gluten-free alternatives.
Gluten Provides a Familiar Taste and Texture
In addition to giving food more structure and elasticity, gluten provides a more consistent taste and texture, or at least a taste and texture that people are used to. While it’s unlikely that you’ve eaten pure gluten, gluten does add a specific taste to foods that you would have grown accustom to if you’ve eaten gluten-containing food.
The challenge with gluten-free food is that many people who must eat gluten-free used to be able to consume gluten, so they naturally compare the taste of gluten-free food to the taste of gluten-containing foods. If the right ingredients are used, gluten-free foods can taste the same or very similar to comparable gluten-containing foods, but not all gluten-free foods are created equal (and some don’t come even close to their gluten-containing counterparts).
Replicating the texture of gluten-containing food with gluten-free alternatives can also be difficult. Gluten-free food can often be gritty compared to comparable gluten-free food when it contains rice or almond flour. This grittiness is the reason that some people jokingly say that gluten-free food tastes like sand. Replicating both the taste and texture of gluten-containing foods with gluten-free alternatives proves to be difficult.
Fun Fact: When I tried gluten-free Oreos for the first time, I thought they tasted exactly like the original gluten-containing Oreos, which I hadn’t been able to eat in over 4 years since my celiac disease diagnosis. When my wife and other gluten-eating friends tried the gluten-free oreos back to back with the gluten-containing oreos, they could tell there was a slight difference in taste and texture.
Gluten (Wheat) is Commonly Used as a Thickener
Wheat flour is used as a thickener in many foods, likely in part because it is cheap. You can find wheat being used as a thickener in chili, gravy, soup, dressing, sauces and lots of other of other products. Not all chili, soups, etc. contain gluten, but if you are gluten-free, it is important to always read the labels on these types of products, and all foods, to verify if they contain gluten.
Foods can Come in Contact with Gluten During Processing
A lot of food does not contain gluten of any form, but it does come in contact with gluten during processing or packaging. Many food producers use the same equipment to process gluten-containing foods as foods that would otherwise be gluten-free because it’s cheaper and more efficient to use the same equipment for multiple types of food.
When reading food labels, you may see statements like “Processed on equipment that also processes wheat” or “processed in a facility that processes wheat” or “May contain wheat.” All of these statements indicate that the food may have come in contact with gluten during processing. I did a comparison of Costco Brand Kirkland Signature nuts and snacks and found that about 1/4 th of the foods would have been gluten-free if they weren’t processed on shared equipment.
Some companies do process foods on dedicated gluten-free lines so that foods do not come in contact with gluten. There are also organizations like the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) that certify products that are truly gluten-free and have not come in contact with gluten at any stage of the production process.
Gluten-Free Food is not Healthier
There is a myth that gluten-free food is healthier than gluten-containing food, but that is not true. Replacing gluten with gluten-free alternatives doesn’t make food more healthy (except for those who have to avoid gluten out of necessity). As we’ve discussed in this article, using gluten-free alternatives does increase the cost of food and often makes it harder to work with.
I’ve written a few articled dedicated to comparing the nutrition of gluten-free foods to gluten-containing foods, like this article about breads, that cover this topic in more detail.
There is High Demand for Gluten-Containing Products
Ultimately, foods are made with gluten because there is high demand for those foods. Only a relatively small percentage of the population eats gluten-free out of necessity, and since there are so many benefits to using gluten instead of gluten-free alternatives in food, companies make and will continue to make gluten-containing foods as that is what the majority of consumers want.
For those of us who do have to live gluten-free, we can have hope in the fact that gluten-free food has improved in quality and become more readily available and less expensive over time, and that these trends will continue.