Gluten is a protein present in wheat flour, which is widely used in commercial and homemade baked goods. Gluten is also found in flour made from barley, rye, spelt, and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps dough to rise and lends shape and a chewy texture to baked goods.
"Baking without gluten can be challenging because gluten contributes important properties to baked products like cookies, cakes, pastries, and breads," says Carol Fenster, PhD, author of 10 gluten-free cookbooks, including 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes, and her most recent, 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes.
That's why, in addition to seeing gluten-free flours such as white rice flour listed in the ingredient list, you may also notice xanthan gum and guar gum. "These gums work with other ingredients, such as yeast, baking soda, and baking powder, to help the dough or batter rise," Fenster says.
Read the Label
For the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a must for good health. Others avoid gluten because they feel sensitive to it.
Among some people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, gluten-free goods may have a "health halo." That is, they're considered more nutritionally valuable for what they contain -- or don't contain, in the case of gluten.
Gluten-free bread, bagels, and muffins may taste better now than when they first hit store shelves years ago, but they haven't improved much nutritionally. The store-bought gluten-free baked goods you eat on a regular basis, such as bread and bagels, are not created equal to regular varieties made with wheat flour.
Wheat flour is typically enriched with vitamins and minerals, including iron, folic acid, and other B vitamins, and whole wheat flour supplies fiber. You can't count on gluten-free flours to provide the same nutrient profile.
It's important to read the Nutrient Facts panels carefully to help avoid certain nutrient shortfalls on a gluten-free eating plan.