Photo: CC--Bart Everson 08/19/2016 - Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus and the clean-eating bloggers of Instagram have all helped propel gluten-free foods out of health-food stores and into the aisles of Whole Foods and Wal-Mart.

Anyone who has ever tried a gluten-free bread or cake has likely found what sufferers of celiac disease have long known. They often don't taste very good. Gluten-free baked goods are often dry, crumbly and flat tasting.

As long as there has been gluten-free bread, there has been mediocre gluten-free bread. This is not the fault of bakers. The problem is structural, chemical. Gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, triggers adverse immune reactions in people with celiac disease. But that same gluten also has uniquely elastic properties that make it perfect for mixing with water, kneading into dough, and baking into chewy delicious bread.

Gluten is what makes our breads spongy, and chewy, and delicious. Cereals and grains like rice, sorghum, buckwheat, which are often milled into gluten-free flours, lack this important component.

Now two inventive Italian food scientists, Virna Cerne and Ombretta Polenghi, are being lauded for their isolation of a protein called zein, that is found in corn. Under the right temperature, humidity, and pH, zein forms an elastic network similar to gluten.

These days, says Cerne, "gluten-free products include a lot of fiber but the fiber cannot be really elastic." Added to different gluten-free flours like rice or corn flour, Cerne adds, isolated zein protein "solves the problem of no elasticity." That means that products using zein protein can be used to develop gluten-free products with many of the same chewy, flaky attributes as bread and baked goods made from wheat flour.

Currently, products using isolated zein protein are still in the research and development phase, but food scientists hope the abundance of low-priced corn will allow the protein to be made cheaply, and thus give rise to more affordable gluten-free alternatives. Cerne and her co-inventor Polenghi, who both work with Italian-based food company Dr Schär, say that their research remains focused on people with serious medical reasons to avoid gluten.

Stay tuned to see how Cerne and Polenghi's work develops and what food breakthroughs might result from their efforts.

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