Lots of people think going gluten-free is stupid if you don’t have celiac disease or a non-celiac wheat sensitivity, sure. But let’s all get off our high horses for a second and say that sometimes, very occasionally, a gluten-free substitute is better than the food it’s trying to mimic.
I do not have a wheat sensitivity, and I love everything about gluten—its chemistry is incredible. But when gluten’s sponginess, its most important gift to bread, isn’t being properly utilized, it might be time to swap for a substitute.
Case-in-point: gluten-free pretzel sticks.
The first time I had gluten-free pretzels sticks, I had mooched them off of Popular Science writer Sara Chodosh, who has celiac disease and knows more about gluten than anyone. They were savory and buttery with a uniform snap—their inside looked more like a foam than like the inside of a pretzel stick. She gave me the rest of her bag. Since then, I have bought no other pretzel stick. After overcoming my prejudices about gluten-free food, I realized, hey, gluten-free pretzel sticks just happen to be better than the food they tried to mimic (Other members of Gizmodo’s staff vehemently disagree with me, but are wrong.)
How could that be? North Carolina State University food scientist and food texture expert Allen Foegeding bought a bag this weekend to help us understand what could make the substitute so good. “I agree, a very good product,” he told Gizmodo. “My perceived sensory differences were a more brittle breakdown,” meaning the pretzel did not bend much and fractured into many pieces, “and low level of tooth packing,” meaning it didn’t get stuck in his teeth as much.
Gluten refers to a set of proteins that are stretchy until cooked. Yeast eats any bread sugars and leaves behind carbon dioxide, producing air pockets in the gluteny lattice. The gluten molecules lock the bubbles into place upon baking. Gluten’s elasticity also allows pretzel makers to give structure to their product, in this case, the pretzel’s shape. But pretzel sticks don’t need to be a specific shape—after all, they can just be sticks.
So, the folks at Snyder’s of Hanover used a mixture of corn starch, potato starch, tapioca starch, and cellulose gum to make a product with properties similar to, but not the same as, wheat flour’s gluten. “Proteins and polysaccharides,” in this case the starch and cellulose gum, “are biopolymers that provide structure in food,” serving the same structural function, said Foegeding. “A simple model for all foods - produced by nature or processing—is that molecules are assembled into structures (by biological or manufacturing processes) that provide the food with specific properties.”
It turns out that in doughs composed of these starches and cellulose, the yeast’s carbon dioxide leaves smaller, more uniform bubbles, compared with those found in the uneven, jagged interior of wheat flour—this is why gluten-free bread feels more like poundcake than a fresh loaf. In the case of pretzels, this texture difference doesn’t really matter, because they’ll be cooked to a crisp anyway. On top of that, palm oil in the gluten-free product rather than canola oil might provide the pretzels with a more crumbly texture.
As for the difference in flavor between gluten-free pretzel sticks and regular ones, nothing really stood out as obvious to Foegeding, but it could be due to the specifics of the Maillard reaction. This chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars is what turns steaks and bread crusts brown and toasty-tasting. The different vegetable flours mean the reaction begins with different precursors, potentially leaving behind a different assortment of flavorful compounds.
Obviously, gluten-free versus gluten-filled pretzel sticks are a personal preference, but food is a game of chemistry, manipulating molecules that undergo various reactions to get a texture and taste consumers find the most pleasing. Sometimes, we rely on a molecule like gluten to produce something like a pretzel, simply because we’ve already got it on hand and don’t feel like considering a better replacement—even if the gluten-free option feels and tastes better.
So, that being said, if someone’s eating a gluten-free product and isn’t celiac, don’t bash them for it. They are people who have the agency to eat whatever they’d like, and who knows, the gluten-free alternative might taste better.