Gluten is a combination of two proteins found in wheat and other grains that gives bread and other baked goods its structure and strength. When you slice a piece of bread, you will see filaments surrounding holes and open spaces; those filaments are formed by gluten. Vital wheat gluten is simply the pure gluten protein.
To make it, a simple dough is made from flour and water, then the dough is washed to remove the carbohydrates. The gluten is then dried and ground into a powder. This powder is added to whole wheat and other types of breads to make the dough stronger, add texture, and increase protein levels.
How It Is Used
Vital wheat gluten is sold as a baking ingredient used to supplement the structure of whole grain breads made with low-protein flours or breads that contain a lot of other ingredients, such as nuts and dried fruits. Wheat bran, cracked wheat, and bread additions interfere with gluten formation in the dough. These breads can be dry and heavy, so bread makers add more gluten to the dough to increase loft and give bread its desirable, fluffy texture.
Vital wheat gluten is a powder that looks like any other flour. It is also used to make seitan, a high-protein meat substitute that is a staple of vegetarian diets.
Why Avoid It?
Since this ingredient contains gliadin and glutenin, the proteins that cause illness in people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, it's important anyone with these conditions avoid the product. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. When celiacs eat foods containing gliadin, their immune systems identify the protein as a threat and react. This inflammatory response can destroy the villi, small projections in the intestinal lining. Celiac patients can become malnourished, since most nutrients are absorbed in the intestines, and they can develop osteoporosis, hormonal disorders, anemia, seizures, migraines, infertility, and even intestinal cancers.
The only other food that contains this ingredient is seitan, a vegetarian meat substitute. When combined with flour, it makes a tough and spongy dough that is chewy and dense. It can be sliced and fried or grilled, just like meat. Beware of foods containing meat substitutes, because they may contain seitan. Check ingredient labels carefully before consuming foods with vegetarian meat substitutes.
There is no pure and absolute substitute for this ingredient, but people who must avoid this protein can add some ingredients to recipes that help mimic gluten's role in foods. Xanthan gum, whey protein, guar gum, and eggs can all be used in celiac-friendly recipes to add structure and improve the texture of the food.
Xanthan and guar gums are polysaccharides that improve elasticity. Whey protein is derived from milk and adds a smooth texture. Eggs, being almost pure protein, add structure to baked goods made without gluten.
When combined with non-wheat flours, these substitutes strengthen the crumb of bread and help trap air that creates bread's characteristic texture. If you choose to use these substitutes, you'll need to experiment to see which works best for you.
Avoid It if You're Sensitive
While this ingredient is most often added to foods already containing gluten, like wheat breads, it may hide in foods containing vegetarian proteins. Look for seitan or vital wheat gluten on ingredient lists, and when in doubt, contact the manufacturer for a food's gluten status before you consume it.