The numbers are fairly stark. "An estimated 1 per cent of Canadians are affected by celiac disease, which is a serious autoimmune disease," says Alison Cazalet, president of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association. And what's more, "an estimated 5 per cent of Canadians suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is an intolerance rather than an autoimmune disease but nevertheless requires the same strict, gluten-free diet."
That's about six in 100 Canadians who must avoid gluten; countless more simply choose to.
But what is gluten, and why is it so important to the loveliness of baked things and pasta? Here's the 101: Gluten is a protein found in many grains, most ubiquitously in wheat. When flour is mixed with water and manipulated, the gluten springs into action – getting stretchy, sticky and strong – letting air bubbles form in bread for a nice, open crumb, giving pizza dough its stretch and giving a strand of spaghetti its strength.
There's also strength in numbers – the Canadian market for gluten-free products has an estimated annual value of $400-million and manufacturers are rising to the demand for non-wallpaper-paste gluten-free foods; eating gluten-free is getting tastier every day. Most abstainers would agree that the holy grail of gluten-free eating is the classic French baguette. The baker who cracks that formula is going to be rich. No. 2 on the list? A decent pasta.
We tasted our way to three fabulous fakes, and while they might not fool Nonna, they will surely satisfy that pasta craving.
We cooked each brand according to the package instructions – we did not rinse the pasta – and tasted each with just a knob of butter and a pinch of salt. Here's what we found:
GoGo Quinoa Spaghetti, $3.50/227 g
Made from: a blend of organic rice and quinoa flours, in Bolivia; not a place known for its pasta prowess, but it is the epicentre of quinoa.
Taste and texture: This stuff has it all going on: White in colour, strong strands, not gluey in the least, and the flavour is nicer than neutral; there's something tasty, yet indescribably yummy going on – might be umami from the protein in the quinoa – and the blast of extra protein is a nice bonus.
The verdict: A bit unorthodox to be sure, but it's our No. 1.
Barilla Gluten Free Spaghetti, $3.79/340 g/12 oz
Made from: a blend of corn and rice flours in a "dedicated gluten-free facility" in Italy.
Taste and texture: The yellow colour suggests more corn in the mix than some brands. This might account for the fragility of the strands. While they are smooth and not gluey, they do break fairly easily into smaller pieces on the plate. The flavour is quite neutral.
The verdict: The flavour is good, the packaging is classy – and it's made in Italy.
PC Organics Brown Rice Spaghetti, $2.49/454 g
Made with: organic brown-rice flour (grown in the USA), manufactured in Canada.
Taste and texture: Nice neutral flavour; certainly doesn't come across as gluten-free. It holds its shape nicely, but the outside is very gummy.
The verdict: A solid No. 3; great value – quantity for money – and it's organic, too.
A previous version of this article on gluten-free pasta incorrectly said about one in 133 Canadians must avoid gluten due to either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. In fact, the number is six in 100.