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Gluten-Free Bread: Is It Really Worse?

On Wednesday, members of the gluten-free community gathered in Washington, D.C. for the first Gluten Free Food Labeling Summit. In recent years, gluten-free foods have become more common in the United States as more and more people are diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the body cannot absorb gluten, a "protein composite" present in wheat, rye, and other grains. However, though Congress tasked the FDA with finalizing labeling standards for gluten free foods back in 2007, the FDA still has not completed that task, a failure that the summit planners hoped to spotlight. As part of the summit, attendants constructed a one-ton, fifteen-foot-high gluten free cake, the largest gluten-free dessert on record. Just how much of a difference, though, does gluten make in foods?

In 2004, in the journal Cereal Chemistry--no, really, Cereal Chemistry--researchers at University College Cork in Ireland compared the textures of wheat bread and three different kinds of gluten-free breads. (At the time, celiac disease was still, according to the study, a "relatively unfamiliar condition." Less than a decade later, some people who don't even have celiac disease now go on gluten-free diets.) In a few areas, the different types of gluten-free bread were comparable: for example, one type, made using gluten-free flour, yielded comparable volume to the wheat bread. But in most cases, the gluten-free breads were worse off: after two days of storage, for example, all the gluten-free breads were very brittle, and for the most part the gluten-free breads had less fiber and protein. Even so, reports from this week's summit say the cake was delicious.