I remember as a boy picking a head of ripe whet, rolling it in my hands to thresh out the kernels, then popping the kernels into my mouth and chewing them. Pretty soon I would have a gummy wad in my mouth, somewhat like chewing gum. This was the gluten in the wheat kernels.
Gluten is the major component of the protein in wheat and this gummy characteristic is what makes bread rise. The fermenting yeast in bread dough produces small bubbles of carbon dioxide which are trapped by the gluten.
In perhaps the last forty years it has become evident that about 1% of people have a problem digesting gluten. There is even a scare campaign being spread today that says gluten is bad for all of us. If that is so, why didn’t gluten cause as much problems in past generations?
There does appear to be a problem with gluten, but not with all gluten. Gluten is actually a compound of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin. In old varieties of wheat, such as Red Fife and Marquis, the gluten is roughly 1/3 gliadin and 2/3 glutenin. These grains do not appear to cause celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance. Modern bread wheat varieties may contain up to 80% gliadin.
There in a nutshell is the problem. It is not necessary to avoid bread altogether, or to use exotic flour substitutes, just go back to the old varieties if you have a problem with bread made from the newer wheat varieties.
Red Fife wheat is once again being grown in all parts of Canada, not in huge quantities, but it is available. Marc Loiselle of Vonda, Saskatchewan is a major producer and promoter of Red Fife. Two bakeries in Saskatoon make bread from the Red Fife wheat grown on his farm. The Loiselle farm website lists other bakeries from Whitehorse, Yukon to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and from Sooke, BC to Skohegan, Maine. The Loiselle farm is also beginning to grow a selected strain of Marquis wheat.
There is considerable gluten research going on today. Wheat varieties have been “improved” to boost yield and disease resistance. In the process, flavour has been lost. Now it is becoming evident that we cannot tamper with the proportions of gliadin and glutenin in the gluten without causing suffering to at least some people.
I do not believe that we need to be too radical in seeking a solution to this. There is no need to abandon bread, when there is flour and bread available from varieties like Red Fife and Marquis. Nevertheless, gluten is added to a wide variety of other foods and it would be well to read the labels carefully when we go grocery shopping.