Often when food scientists think of avoiding gluten in a product formulation, they think wheat flour only. However, there are many hidden sources of gluten in the food ingredients business, and even the slightest amount in a food product can cause the consumer many discomforts if they are afflicted with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is a lifelong autoimmune intestinal disorder that is found in individuals who are genetically susceptible. Damage to the mucosal surface of the small intestine is caused by an immunologically toxic reaction to the ingestion of gluten and interferes with the absorption of nutrients, and in some cases, water and bile salts. If left untreated, damage to the small bowel can be chronic and life threatening, causing an increased risk of associated disorders—both nutritional and immune related.
The only treatment is to avoid consuming gluten, which is the protein found in all forms of wheat (including durum, semolina and spelt), rye, oats, barley and related grain hybrids such as triticale and kamut. Avoiding bread, pasta, cookies, etc., is pretty straight forward. The problem lies in the fact that gluten is hidden in many unsuspecting foods. For example, if pudding or ice cream contains any type of wheat starch‐based stabilizer, a celiac cannot eat it. Soy sauce, malt vinegar and even some flavorings must be avoided because they are fermented in the presence of wheat. Processed meats typically contain wheat starch‐based fillers, as do salad dressings, soups and dips.
The cause of celiac disease is unknown and it may appear at any time in a person’s life. The disease can be triggered for the first time after surgery, viral infection, severe emotional stress, pregnancy or childbirth.
Celiac disease has become increasingly prevalent. Statistics vary from one out of 133 people to one out of 111 people in the United States being affected, and it occurs in 5% to 15% of the offspring and siblings of a person with celiac disease. In 70% of identical twin pairs, both twins have the disease. Recent studies suggest that more than two million Americans are afflicted with celiac disease; however, this number may be grossly underestimated because it is hard to diagnose. It is estimated that the number of sufferers of celiac disease will increase worldwide by a factor of 10 during the next few years. As mentioned, the only treatment is to adhere to gluten‐free diet. When gluten is removed from the diet, the small intestine starts to heal and overall health improves.
Retailers such as Trader Joe’s provide a list of gluten‐free products that one can find in the store. The store’s executives took the guessing work out of identifying gluten‐free foods. In fact, the company says that it has checked all the foods with labels that say natural flavors, vanilla, food starches and vinegars. If these generic terms are gluten‐free, the food has made the list.
One of gluten’s claims to fame is that it provides structure to foods. Therefore, when formulating gluten‐free, food designers seek out ingredients that assist with similar functionality. As gluten is a protein, it only makes sense to seek out other functional proteins, one of which is egg albumin. Concentrated in the white of the egg, egg proteins can be used, often along with other ingredients, to be the gluten replacement of choice—even in gluten‐free breads, which can be made with alternative grains such as rice.
Egg proteins provide structure and coagulative properties to bind food products such as snacks, processed meats and prepared entrees. They can coagulate and create gels, readily replacing the gluten‐containing ingredients typically used in the manufacture of frostings, custards and fish surimi.
Egg proteins can improve the mouthfeel of sweet goods and puddings by providing substantial body and smoothness. They can thicken sauces, gravies, smoothies and other viscous products that normally rely on starch ingredients. Egg proteins can even tenderize gluten‐free bread substitutes.
As more cases of celiac disease are diagnosed, the need for more and varied gluten‐free products will increase. Food scientists will likely use a variety of ingredients to mimic gluten, one of which will be egg protein.