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Gluten is the component of wheat responsible for "gluing" baked goods together.

There are at least 3 million Americans struggling with celiac disease, according to a 2001 Columbia University survey. As the holidays approach, goodies made with flour become a potential threat. Jennifer Tveitnes, a dietitan at the West Broadway Hy-Vee, says the human body’s reaction to gluten can be very severe, especially in cases of celiac disease. “It will actually destroy the lining of their intestine along with causing lots of other uncomfortable physical symptoms,” she says. Understanding the science of baking can help the holidays be gluten-free but not flavor-free.

Xanthan gum is gluten-free glue

Gluten is the mixture of related or distinct proteins in wheat, mainly gliadin and glutenin, which acts like a glue and holds baked goods together. This is why gluten-free treats can easily become a crumbly mess. “Gluten is a binder, so things just don’t bind as well and stick together as well, so they have to use different ingredients to help with that,” Tveitnes says. Xanthan gum is one added binder in gluten-free baking. This carbohydrate is made of bonded and fermented sugar molecules, according to King Arthur Flour, a company that sells baking ingredients and teaches cooking lessons. “You see it as a thickening agent and a stabilizing agent in a lot of foods,” says Sarah Wood, the MU assistant Extension professor of nutrition and exercise physiology.

Flour is finicky

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Derek Rieke

Flour, which is used in most baking recipes, contains gluten.

The flour that’s typically used for baking, whether it’s white or wheat, contains gluten. And unfortunately, there is no flour substitute that works perfectly. Mary Manulik, the founder of Senza, a gluten-free baking company, recommends using different types of flour to create a mixture that tastes good and works for baking. You can buy a premade gluten-free flour mixture from most grocery stores and supermarkets, or follow a recipe if you prefer to make your own.

Beware of hidden gluten

A number of other ingredients can contain gluten, from some powdered sugar to starch-based thickeners. The caramel color listed in imitation vanilla uses malt barley which contains gluten, according to the website Be Food Smart, which provides ingredient information. “When you’re following a gluten-free diet, it’s really essential that you pay attention to the food label and the ingredient list,” Wood says.

Items like soy sauce, artificial creamer, imitation vanilla and powdered sugar can contain gluten. Instead, look for gluten-free substitutes, available at most grocery stores or specialty stores such as Natural Grocers. Some common ingredients include xanthan gum, cornmeal, gluten-free baking flour mix and teff flour.

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