Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gluten Free without Fuss: A Go-To Guide

Gluten Free without Fuss: A Go-To Guide
Sarah Reid, RHNC

Have you ever toyed with the notion of going free? It seems like it’s become the new “fad diet” out there, and even given the restrictions that lifestyle entails, the shopping is easier than ever these days. What used to be relegated to the back corner of the health food store, and looked down on by the gastronomes of common society due to their poor taste and texture, gluten free products are now a dime a dozen (well, maybe $10 a dozen) in the local grocery. Breads, pastas, cookies and pizzas without a speck of this ingredient are now enjoyed  by celiac sufferers and healthy people alike.

Most people are unaware of exactly gluten is and what it does, but all the same they want or need to eliminate it from their meal plans. Gluten forms the main protein component of many common grains: wheat, rye, barley, durum, semolina, and spelt; as well as many other, lesser-known grains like einkorn, graham, bulgur wheat, farro, Kamut, and triticale. This protein makes flours milled from them elastic and “sticky” – allowing for the texture and rise in common baked goods, the “springiness” of pasta dough and also forming the basis for many vegetarian meat analogues in the form of seitan or “wheat meat”. 

The problem is that gluten is just that – a sticky protein. As a protein, it’s a high-allergy risk factor (people are more predisposed to developing antagonistic responses to proteins than sugars or other compounds), and it latches onto any surface it touches. Flours, malted grains (like beer, rye, Scotch and some vodkas), and malt vinegar all carry the substance. Even items with no obvious grain base like soy sauce, soup and stock, many artificial flavours (especially vanilla), tortilla chips, pre-formed and seasoned meats (like sausages, hot dogs and burgers), some seasoning blends and even vegan tofu and tempeh products can all be laced with gluten. While oats – as a pure and whole food – are actually gluten free, the milling and refining processes by most commercial suppliers usually contaminates the processing lines (and your quick-cooking oats) with this sticky protein.

So with all this fuss and bother, why is cutting out gluten suddenly all the rage? Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that there are more cases of gluten intolerance (which is not the same as a wheat allergy) and celiac disease being diagnosed in modern society. Thanks in part to a Western culinary history with a steady diet of bread, pasta, cookies and cakes, the modern (European-based) gut has become sensitized to the protein and the intestinal walls are changing shape, losing many of the absorbent villi and enzymes along the way. Without these “sponges” undigested proteins hit the bloodstream and are attacked by nature’s antibodies, and every time afterwards the target is on that protein’s back.

The other, less serious, reason “gluten-free” has become the latest “buzz” is because the common gluten-containing foods are refined carbohydrates that, coupled with a gastric system lacking sufficient “good” bacteria to digest the sugars, ferments in the intestines. The result? Bloating, gas, pain and a high risk of Candida infestation – which can cause or aggravate other allergic reactions such as skin rashes, swelling of the face and limbs, weight gain, hypertension and pain. The sensitivity to other possible allergens caused by a Candida imbalance heightens the risk of reacting to common proteins in the rest of the diet (including dairy, nuts, seeds, beef, chicken, soy and yes – wheat). Eliminating the Candida properly and completely will almost always exercise the associated symptoms as well, but it is a lengthy process and most busy individuals would rather pay to treat the immediate symptoms with a low-allergy food choice than embarking on a month-long detoxification program (especially now that options are so readily available).

Brown Rice - A cheap, healthy GF staple

Regardless of the reasons for adopting a gluten-free life, it is key to note just what is and isn’t accepted. Aside from the obvious wheat-flour based foods and the grains listed above, bear in mind that items like beers, rye, Scotch and vodka are not usually safe pours at the pub. Most items that are deep fried are off the list as well… unless made in a dedicated deep fryer and (if battered or breaded) with coatings that are safe. Processed meat and vegetarian meat analogues, flavourings and sauces are often bound with vital wheat gluten or flavoured with soy sauce. Many candies, gums, and chocolate are also risky for those needing to avoid gluten – when in doubt as to the ingredients on the label, a phone call to most lines’ or restaurants’ customer service departments can solidify your decision.

So what can you eat – and enjoy – that’s gluten free and healthy? Most newcomers to the lifestyle fall into the trap of buying anything and everything with the “GF” label on the package. Not only are these products usually no better for you than conventional processed goods, the “specialty” status of the breads, cookies, pizza and other assorted items commands a premium price well above most grocery budgets. The simplest, cheapest and healthiest way to go gluten-free is to emulate what many celiac have been doing for years – stock up on naturally gluten free whole grains (rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and tapioca) in bulk stores and pick up corn and potatoes to fill the starch “gap” in “traditional” meals. Enjoy the naturally pure eggs, meat, fish and produce that line the outer borders of the grocery store. This new way of shopping – whether your diet is medically mandated or not – will enhance your total body health by keeping the majority of additives and preservatives out of your cart. Embracing unflavoured nuts, seeds and legumes is another good way to bring protein, good fats and fibre to your meal plan. Almonds, chickpeas, lentils and most seeds (like sesame, pumpkin, flax and chia) are excellent additions to your menu. When it comes to cooking these new grains, start by finding a few reliable recipe sources like gluten-free cookbooks (Flying Apron's Gluten-Free and Vegan Baking Book, Gluten-Free on a Shoestring: 125 Easy Recipes for Eating Well on the Cheap and Gluten-Free Quick & Easy: From Prep to Plate Without the Fuss are good ones to start with) and online blogs like those written by Karina Allrich, Ricki Heller and Shauna James Ahern (all the links to these resources are at the bottom of this article). Once you’re comfortable in the new kitchen surroundings, branch out and make your own favourites to share with your friends and family.

Finally, be patient when it comes to incorporating the gluten free world into your life. While you may have to go “cold turkey” (as in the case of celiac disease), it can take up to two weeks for your tongue and body to readjust. The flavours, textures and nutritional profiles are all different, and  it may be harder than you ever imagined at first – but the tough times will pass and within a month you’ll wonder why you were missing what made you feel so awful in the first place.

When you make the move to a gluten free meal system, food is not the only thing you need to be mindful of. Surround yourself with supportive, helpful, loving people that can carry you through your crises and listen to your emotional outbursts that are inevitable during this giant lifestyle shift. You will always value a shoulder to cry on, a hug on a dreary day, and a no-compromises shopping buddy to keep you from slipping up on the path to wellness. Remember – it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination!


Food Lists (Allowed/ Questionable/Banned):  

Bob’s Red Mill:

Flying Apron's Gluten-Free and Vegan Baking Book:  

Gluten-Free on a Shoestring: 125 Easy Recipes for Eating Well on the Cheap:  

Gluten-Free Quick & Easy: From Prep to Plate Without the Fuss:

Gluten-Free Goddess (Karina Allrich):

Diet, Dessert and Dogs (Ricki Heller):  

Gluten-Free Girl (Shauna James Ahern):

Canadian Celiac Association:

Celiac Disease and Gluten-free Diet Information:

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About Me

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I started my "working life" as a holistic and allopathic nutritional consultant with a love of cooking. Teaching the value of wholesome meal choices to families became close to my heart after I battled a long history of struggles with weight and health, and the passion for teaching led me into where I am now. My blog, which focuses on "bringing good taste to healthier food" through creative use of whole grains, fresh produce and acknowledging the importance of the occasional treat, also features a wealth of "specialty diet" friendly recipes for gluten-, egg-, dairy- and sugar- tree nut-free items that everyone can enjoy without alienating those who need them.

Overall, I want to bring back the desire for good quality, homemade, (mostly) healthy food into the hearts and kitchens of families so that the next generation will be less box-reliant than mine. I firmly believe that any “homemade” food, even when labelled as "naughty", is a more wholesome treat than pre-packaged, cookie-cutter junk. With the knowledge of good food (and how to cook good food) as a base, a healthy lifestyle can follow, and then anything is possible!