Gluten, the Rodney Dangerfield of protein

Vicky BoydMuch like the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, gluten gets no respect. The naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley and rye has been vilified and, at the very least, totally misunderstood.

I have to look no further than a computer programmer friend with whom I was talking recently. I consider him to be pretty smart, but the questions he was asking opened my eyes about how little the public knows about gluten and why the rice industry needs to continue educating them about it. Fortunately, plain unflavored brown and white rice do not contain gluten.

Our conversation stemmed from a photo I sent him of a bag of brown rice grits I had purchased. After educating him that brown and white rice are the same—white rice has simply had the outer bran removed—our discussion moved to gluten. The protein, which gives bread and pizza dough elasticity and structure, has become public enemy No. 1.

A very small number of people have Celiac disease, and eating any gluten can cause sometimes life-threatening health issues. A somewhat larger group, though still very small, suffers from gluten intolerance. If they eat gluten, they have digestive distress but won’t die.

Spurred by fear mongers, food faddists and a lot of erroneous information on the Web, a large number of consumers have gluten aversions. Marketers have taken note, and everything from cherries and almonds to chicken are now labeled “gluten free.” If the public had any knowledge about gluten, they would know this is a marketing ploy and these foods have always been gluten free because they’re not related to wheat.

After sitting through Gluten 101, my friend asked whether it was gluten that made sticky rice sticky.
I replied that rice was inherently gluten free. Instead, it was the presence or absence of amylose, a naturally occurring starch, that controlled kernels’ adhesiveness. Sticky rice, sometimes called sushi rice, also has amylopectin, a plant-based compound that enhances stickiness. Southern long grain, on the other hand, has high amylose and low amylopectin levels. That’s why the individual grains cook up separately and tend to be a bit drier.

“But what about when I eat a big plate of rice and bread and other things for lunch?” he asked. “I feel lethargic afterwards, and I always thought that was the gluten in rice.”

I repeated that rice is gluten free and pointed out that it didn’t really matter what he ate at lunch—if he ate it in large enough amounts, his body would redirect energy to digest it and he would feel like he needed a nap.