Few food crazes are as reviled, and misunderstood, as the recent spike in gluten-free products. And while even a doctor will tell you that it makes no sense to stop eating gluten unless you are gluten intolerant or part of the tiny minority of people suffering from celiac disease, gluten-free substitutes abound.
This has lead to its own cottage industry of bakers trying to make gluten-free breads that actually taste as good as good as their wheaty counterparts. Some use mushrooms to substitute the magic mix of proteins that is gluten, while others resort to xanthan gum. But, the sad reality is that most breads made without gluten don't really taste good, or even like bread, for that matter. That's why the race is on to recreate the sweet, soft, puffy starchiness of gluten.
That's where Italian inventors Virna Cerne and Ombretta Polenghi come in. They claim to have isolated a protein in corn called zein. Much like gluten, zein can impart an elastic-y texture into bread if it's exposed to the appropriate levels of temperature, moisture, and pH, but without using potentially harmful wheat-based gluten.
This discovery led to Cerne and Polenghi being honoured at the European Inventor Awards in Lisbon. But the job of inventor doesn't end with mere discoveries; it's a profession which, by definition, requires one to push into the realm of invention. Working with Italian food company Dr Schär, Cerne and Polenghi are using their research on zein to find more palatable bread solutions for those suffering from celiac disease.
"Today the gluten-free products include a lot of fiber but the fiber cannot be really elastic," Cerne told Quartz. "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."
Not only would this solution create a better texture, but it would also be a lot cheaper than most gluten substitutes because of the low cost of corn. Cerne and Polenghi also made a point mentioning that there was no reason for people without celiac to avoid gluten.
"In the past only people who really need the gluten-free diet buy our products," Cerne told Quartz. "Today there are people that don't need it but they want to change the taste of their food, or they think it's healthier."
One thing is for sure, if there are inventors tasked with making gluten-free bread, pasta, and pastries more delicious, you'd want them to be from Italy.