Popping Off about Gluten-Free Rice Krispies

By Joe Schwarcz PhD, Author, USASEF Expo Performer, AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty Program Speaker
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The malt flavouring is gone! Celiac sufferers are no longer limited to listening to the snap, crackle and pop of Rice Krispies! They can actually eat the cereal that has been music to the ears of legions since 1928 but has been verboten for anyone with a sensitivity to gluten, the mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. Rice contains no gluten and is in general a staple for celiac sufferers. But malt flavouring, a standard ingredient in Rice Krispies, can harbour a trace of gluten, enough to cause misery.

So what makes puffed rice speak to its fans? Some neat technology! First the rice grains are treated with steam to introduce moisture, which performs a dual function. As more heat is applied, moisture provides the pressure needed to expand the grain of rice. Simultaneously, the water acts as an internal lubricant, or plasticizer, allowing the molecules of starch to slide past each other to meet the needs of the increasing surface area of the grain. As heating continues, water is expelled from between the starch molecules, which then form bonds to each other, setting up a rigid network that traps pockets of air. At the same time, some of the sugar, the second ingredient in Rice Krispies, dissolves, and then forms a tough film as the water evaporates, further strengthening the walls that surround the air pockets.

It is these air pockets that differentiate silent cereals from the musical ones. Every orchestra needs a conductor, and in this the baton is wielded by the milk. As the cold liquid is absorbed by the cereal it squeezes out the trapped air, which then fractures some of the thin walls that separate the pockets producing the resounding snap, crackle and pop! It seems, though, that when Rice Krispies were introduced, Kellogg was not satisfied with a cereal that entertained the ears, it also had to entertain the palate. And that's when malt flavouring made its entry.

Remember going down to the "malt shop" with a date for a "malt?" If you do, you date yourself, but will probably recall the soda jerk spooning some powdered "malted milk" into a glass, adding water, stirring, and then plunking in a big scoop of ice cream. The frothy, sweet goo with a hint of caramel flavour was then ready to be sucked through a straw.

As the name suggests, malted milk is a mix of malt and milk powder. And what is malt? Take some grain, soak it in water until it germinates, dry with hot air and you have malt. During the process enzymes are released that break the grain's starch down into sugars such as glucose, fructose, sucrose and maltose which are responsible for the malt's sweetness. But the characteristic flavour is due to maltol, a compound that forms when proteins undergo enzymatic degradation. Unfortunately, any malt made from wheat, rye or barley may contain some residue of gluten and is a no-no for celiacs.

Since malt adds more than just sweetness, the taste of gluten-free Rice Krispies is not identical with the original version. Sugar, still the second ingredient, provides the sweetness, but the taste is now due to whole grain brown rice instead of refined white rice.

Devoting so much attention to the nuances of a sugary snack whose popularity can be traced not to its taste or nutritional content but to the odd noises it produces, may seem frivolous. But if it helps to bring attention to the problems faced by celiac patients and the need for a greater variety of gluten-free products, then the discussion is justified.

Celiac disease is an insidious affliction fully deserving of the description "protean." Proteus was the sea-god of Greek mythology, capable of assuming many forms, just like celiac disease with its variation in signs and symptoms. Gastric problems, depression, irritability, joint pain, mouth sores, muscle cramps, skin rash, tingling sensations, fatigue and osteoporosis can all be associated with a reaction to gluten. Indeed Dr. John Weiner, an Australian allergist suggests that any chronic medical problem that defies diagnosis should be regarded as celiac disease until proven otherwise.

The incidence of celiac disease is roughly one in a hundred, and rising. Several blood tests are available to alert to the possibility of the disease, but a firm diagnosis requires evidence of damage to the lining of the intestine and is only available through a biopsy. The sole treatment is scrupulous avoidance of any contact with gluten. There have even been reports of symptoms being triggered by the use of cosmetics such as body lotions that may have had some ingredients derived from wheat, barley or rye. Cosmetic manufacturers would do well to take a page from the Rice Krispies notebook and produce a greater variety of gluten-free products.

Celiacs know that they must avoid gluten. But there are many people who may have the disease to some degree without knowing it. In one study, forty subjects who had no symptoms but had a positive blood test were randomly divided into two groups. Half followed a gluten-free diet, the other half ate as usual. After the experiment, those on the gluten-free diet reported an overall feeling of improved health and well-being. A whopping eighty-five percent elected to continue a gluten-free diet!

Obviously a case can be made for dietary restriction if a blood test has shown gluten sensitivity. But is it possible that gluten has yet another sinister side? There is more and more talk of "nonceliac gluten sensitivity." People with no evidence of celiac disease claim that avoiding gluten resolves all sorts of symptoms ranging from headaches and bloating to hyperactivity and fatigue.

It seems gluten is fast becoming the latest dietary villain, blamed by some "alternative" practitioners for almost every human ailment. But speculative crackle has to be replaced by evidence before we come to any snap decision and pop off about gluten-free Rice Krispies being the right choice for everyone. Or, considering the high sugar content, for anyone.

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