Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Crash Course in Gluten Free

We've been gluten free for over a year now, and have been blessed with supportive family and friends who have taken it upon themselves to familiarize themselves with gluten free foods. In the past year we've met more and more people who are already familiar with the phrase "gluten free" as the celiac disease becomes more widely recognized and the gluten free diet has gone mainstream. Still, the majority of people we meet for the first time still have questions about what, exactly, it means to be gluten free. They're the same questions that we had when we started out, and I hope to at least start to answer some of those questions with this blog post.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and derivatives of these grains. (Oats are often included on the list of foods to avoid because of a high risk of cross-contamination with wheat). People with celiac disease or other gluten intolerances cannot properly digest gluten, causing potentially severe health problems. (In face, in the case of celiac sufferers, ingesting gluten causes an autoimmune response, where their bodies are actually attacking their intestines). The symptoms are similar to Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

So, what does it mean to be gluten free? Well, first off -- avoiding all foods that contain gluten. No wheat, rye, barley, or regular oats. What exactly does this mean?
  • Well, first, let's cut out all the obvious "traditional" foods: bread, pizza, pasta, cakes, cookies, pies, beer, anything with malt vinegar.
  • Next, let's start reading ingredient labels. Canned soups, broths, and stocks, soy sauces, marinades, salad dressings, cereals, and any other processed food product has to be looked at very carefully for gluten-containing ingredients. Imitation crab, for example, almost always contains wheat.
  • Not only do you have to read main ingredient labels, but sometimes innocuous-sounding ingredients like "natural flavors," "artificial flavors," and "caramel color" can contain gluten, so when in doubt it's best to contact the company regarding their labelling policy.
  • Finally, cross-contamination. Potatoes are gluten free -- french fries cooked in a fryer with chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks are contaminated with gluten. A salad where the croutons have been "picked out" is contaminated by gluten. A slice of gluten free bread toasted in a communal toaster may be contaminated by gluten. Since as little as a crumb can potentially set off a bad reaction in a celiac person, it's best to be on the paranoid side.

Now that I've scared you, you're wondering -- what exactly can you eat if you're gluten free? The answer is simple: A lot of things. But, it does require some research and creativity. (If you do decide to start dabbling in the kitchen? Invest in a stand mixer. It's been my best friend in the kitchen and just may be the best $300 I've ever spent -- and our deep fryer comes in second).

First of all -- many foods are naturally gluten free. Fresh fruit and veggies (frozen veggies with no sauce), meats and seafood, potatoes, rice, and nuts are all naturally gluten free, as are most cheeses. But, when you're new to the gluten free community the first question on your mind is "Rice and potatoes are great, but can I ever eat traditional carbs again?" The answer is a resounding yes! Not only are rice and potatoes gluten free but many other non-traditional grains that are delicious and healthy: sorghum, millet, flax, quinoa, amaranth, and the list goes on.

There are several solutions for gluten free breads, pastas, pizzas, and desserts. Since this is an introductory post, the only thing I'll say about gluten free cooking is that it's possible, healthier and sometimes even downright easy to make some of these options for yourself. But, when we were brand new to gluten free, we preferred to find options that were pre-made to ease us into the transition. Pre-made foods tend to be expensive, not as healthy, and often not that good -- but there are quite a few good options out there. For example, Bionaturae gluten free pasta. Bar none, the best gluten free pasta we've tried.

As you do research you'll find a lot of mainstream gluten free goods as well - General Mills and Kraft are very good about product labelling and will not "hide" gluten in their ingredients (no worrying about natural flavors). Furthermore General Mills has become aware of the gluten free community and is making several of their items gluten free -- such as Chex cereals and introducing Betty Crocker gluten free mixes.

Overall? Gluten free doesn't mean you'll never eat pizza again. Or cakes or cookies. It means, however, that you can start experimenting with new things that you may not have tried before -- but you'll certainly be able to eat modified versions of favorite foods. In fact, it's very easy to make your own gluten free pizza (or get it at at Uno's if you'd prefer), enjoy your pizza with a beer, eat a sandwich on freshly baked gluten free bread, or even enjoy gluten free apple cider doughnuts.

Have any questions? Leave a comment on this post. I'd love to write a follow-up to this entry.

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