I’m going to tell you all something that you probably already know. Regardless of the plethora of gluten-free breads and baked goods out there, one thing continues to remain certain: none of them taste all that good. But you may want to start to get excited, because it looks like that may be about to change.
Thanks to Italian food scientist duo Virna Cerne and Ombretta Polenghi, your gluten-free bread may soon get a major upgrade. Cerne and Polenghi, partners at Italian-based food company Dr. Schar, have come up with a quality gluten substitute that closely mimicks the real thing. This past week, they were honored at the European Inventor Awards in Lisbon for their successful isolation of a protein found in corn called zein.
Why can’t we get gluten-free baked goods to taste as good as their counterparts? That question is best answered by defining what gluten does in the first place. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, is unique in its ability to form an “elastic network” when combined together with water and kneaded into dough. It’s what makes croissants flakey and what gives cakes their crumb. Grains like rice and buckwheat, often used to make gluten-free flours, lack this essential component and require adding all kinds of gums and starches to make them palatable.
Zein is a protein found in corn, that under the right conditions of temperature, moisture, and pH, forms an elastic network similar to that of gluten.
Zein is actually fairly commonplace stuff! If you’ve had candy recently, odds are you’ve eaten some of it. Zein is sold in the U.S. as confectioner’s glaze. The one downside of zein is that it is fussy – heat, humidity, pH and other variables need to be exactly right for it to create a structure that so closely mimicks gluten.
Zein infused products are still in the research and development phase, but it looks very promising. The hope is that because the protein is found in corn, a food that is widely and cheaply cultivated, it will provide more affordable gluten-free alternatives. “Today, the gluten-free products contain a lot of fiber, but fiber can’t really be elastic,” explains Cerne. “Once the zein protein is isolated, it can be added to different gluten-free flours like rice or corn flour and it solves the problem of no elasticity.”
For people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, gluten-free bread products are often eaten out of necessity rather than choice. Just like anyone else, we want buns for our hot dogs and to be able to enjoy things like birthday cake and pizza nights. But gluten-free products, while constantly improving, still seriously lack in taste and texture.
Cerne and Polenghi’s main career goals are to help people who are forced to avoid gluten still enjoy their carbs. They want to ensure that pastas, cakes, and loaves of bread are up to par. “We taste gluten-free products 10 times a day,” says Polenghi. “We’re very organized in terms of what we call sensory evaluation, with a panel of 10 taste testers who give an objective evaluation of a product’s softness, crunchiness of crust, dimensions, cereal aroma, sourness, saltiness and sweetness. We want people to enjoy our food.”