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NMSU Extension helps find tasty alternatives for gluten-free diets

Receiving a medical diagnosis of gluten intolerance can be emotionally devastating.

Cindy Davies, NMSU Extension home economist, right, and Ruth Baldwin, dietitian, left, place a plate of pancakes on the table for a taste test during a gluten-free baking class at the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service office. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

The condition can range in severity from a mild intolerance to having celiac disease, an autoimmune and digestive condition caused by gluten. Whatever the degree of severity, the person will have to change their eating habits to ensure they do not consume gluten, a protein contained in wheat, barley and rye.
New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service is helping people find their way to living gluten free.

"Our country has overdosed itself in white, enriched flour," said Cindy Davies, Bernalillo County Extension home economist, who has been fielding calls on where to find product and how to bake gluten free. "People's systems may have reached the tipping point. People in their 50s and 60s who haven't been wheat intolerant or having issues before, are now finding that one piece of white bread will send them to bed for the day or they don't have any energy the next day."

It is very difficult to be gluten free. Gluten is not only in flours made with wheat, rye and barley, but seems to be in everything.

"Wheat is the cheapest of the grains, so it is used as filler, starch and a thickening agent in many products," Davies said. "A gluten-intolerant person has to be aware that a product could have gluten in it because of these other uses. They quickly become label readers and know all the names for ingredients that contain gluten."

With the onset of inquires about wheat allergies and gluten, Davies began researching products to replace wheat flour, and eventually started teaching a gluten-free baking class. She quickly learned that gluten-free products were scarce and, if available, were expensive.

"During the few years I've been answering questions about gluten-free baking, the increase in products that have come onto the market is amazing," Davies said. "We do a taste test of pancake mixes in our class. Two years ago, I only found one or two packaged mixes; now we are working with 12 different companies' product."

Although there are now more products available, it's still not an easy transition to baking gluten free.

"People go through a grief process because they are eliminating foods they grew up with that are easy to prepare, available in restaurants and inexpensive," said Ruth Baldwin, a dietitian who is gluten intolerant.

Baldwin shares her expertise and experience with students in the Bernalillo County Extension diabetic cooking and gluten-free baking classes. Prior to going gluten free, she enjoyed making artisan breads.

"I tell people to not think of it as substituting gluten-free flour to create their favorite foods, because it won't taste the same. They need to look at it as a new food that has its own texture and flavor."

Gluten is the component of wheat flour that makes dough elastic and stretchy. It traps gas within baked goods, providing a light, airy structure and gives bread its distinctive odor. While there are alternative flours, such as rice, tapioca, potato starch and bean, they just don't have the texture or taste of wheat flour.

People living in the gluten-free world say their kitchens have become science experiments as they try to find the alternative flour that tastes good to them.
"It can get expensive buying the different alternative flours and mixes only to find out you don't like them," Davies said. "So to help them find an alternative pancake mix that tastes good to them, during our class we prepare six different mixes to be taste tested."

To find baked goods recipes to replace people's old favorites, Davies asked Carol Turner in NMSU's Department of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences for help.

"Graduate student Liz Cobb started testing different gluten-free recipes from around the country, but we found them unsatisfactory because of the affect of cooking at high altitude," said Turner, a food and nutrition specialist. "So we went back to basics and developed a flour mix to replace wheat flour."

Typically people try to work with only one type of flour, which causes much of the texture and flavor issues. The alternative flours have either an overbearing taste or were bland.

"Once Liz started doing a combination of flour types, the texture and flavor started to mimic flours that have gluten properties," Turner said. "We came up with an all-purpose flour mix that contains equal parts brown rice and white rice flour, equal parts tapioca and sweet rice flour, and a small amount of xanthium gum."

Xanthium gum is a common thickener that is the fermentation product of the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, which is grown in various mediums including bulk corn sugars.

"Xanthium gum holds the flour together so the finished baked good does not crumble," said Davies. "It is expensive but takes a very small amount in a recipe. I encourage people to not purchase more than a third of a cup at a time, which will last a very long time."

The other flour mix Cobb developed is a combination of three parts rice flour and one part potato starch flour with a half part of tapioca flour.

It took Cobb the entire summer of 2011, testing approximately 50 recipes, to develop the flour mixes and recipes for buttermilk biscuits, bagels, walnut honey bread, pizza crust, zucchini muffins, buttermilk waffles, banana pecan pancakes, chocolate chip cookies and pie crust. These recipes will be issued in an Extension publication this summer, but may be obtained now from Turner at caturner@nmsu.edu.

"What I like about these recipes is that they are created from a nutritional standpoint and have a lower quantity of fats than is in packaged mixes," said Baldwin. "I have used the flour mixes and I think people are going to love these recipes."