Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Gluten Free Primer

Just before I met my wonderful wife, I had a girlfriend who had Celiac Disease, a severe intolerance to the gluten protein found in wheat and some other grains.  The symptoms of the disease involve damage to the cilia and lining of the small intestines, severe digestive problems, and malnutrition due to the intestinal damage (food just flies through like a slip-n-slide instead of being absorbed).  The good news is that it can be "treated" using a 100% gluten-free diet.

Since then, doctors and scientists have learned much more about the disease and nutritionists know much more about the process of eating gluten-free--something that is way more difficult than you would think as gluten is "hidden" in lots of things you'd never expect, like canned chicken broth and even a tiny amount can trigger the reaction in many patients.  On top of that, many medical folks have figured out that a GF diet can be used to help a whole host of other conditions like Asperger's Syndrome and various types of Autism.

In any event, I spent a lot of time learning about how to cook and eat gluten-free (even though I don't need it myself) and I'm often asked by people who have been newly diagnosed how to get started.  It's quite overwhelming.  I thought I'd take a minute or two here to list-out my sort of "GF Primer" for those who might find it helpful.

Tips & Tricks
  • As a general rule of thumb, avoid Wheat, Oats, Barley, or Rye and derivatives of them like malt extract, some grain-based alcohols, etc.  Beware of "modified food starch," which is sometimes corn and sometimes wheat.  Labeling laws require that the source be specified but that's not always the case.
  • Genetically speaking, Oats are gluten-free, but they're often grown and processed next to wheat products and are subject to cross-contamination.  Several companies, such as Bob's Red Mill and McCann's sell gluten-free oats that are labeled on the package as such.
  • Buy yourself a good GF pancake mix (King Arthur Flour, Pamela's, and Bob's make good ones) and use that cup-for-cup in your favorite cookie or quickbread recipe.  I suggest pancake mix because it tends to perform better than most GF All-Purpose Flour mixes and you don't have to run out right away for specialty ingredients like Xantham or Guar Gum.
  • Before attempting your own bread, which can be a flop the first few times, buy a good sandwich bread mix and start there.  Gluten-Free Pantry makes an excellent one.
  • Craving pizza?  I've been told Chebe Bread pizza mix is one of the best.  King Arthur and Bob's also have one.
  • Pick-up a copy of The Gluten-Free Gourmet by Bette Hagman and read it from cover-to-cover.  This is the original and definitive volume on getting started cooking GF.  Bette also writes several other books that you might be interested in as you get more comfortable.
  • Ask your favorite restaurants if they have a Gluten-Free menu available.  Many chain and local restaurants have them now upon request or are more willing to substitute side dishes and breaded coatings to make a "safe" meal for you.  If a restaurant won't tell you what's in their recipe, find another restaurant that will.
  • There are plenty of rice and corn-based pastas on the market (check the health foods aisle), but I personally think Quinoa Pasta tastes and looks the closest to plain semolina pasta.
  • In the last year or so, King Arthur Flour has developed a fantastic line of GF baking mixes and recipes using their products.
  • Beware of boxed cereals made from corn.  While the corn itself is GF, often it is coated in malt extract for taste.  Health food stores or places like whole Foods often carry "One Ingredient" products like corn flakes and puffed rice cereals.  Chex has apparently made the majority of their line GF as well.
  • When buying canned, boxed, frozen, or otherwise processed foods, really learn to read the labels and get to know where gluten may be hiding in other ingredients.  It's also helpful to email manufacturers and ask what their policy is on labeling of gluten products.  For example, Kraft Foods used to have a policy stating that if the product had gluten in it, it'd be labeled with the base ingredient, such as "Modified Food Starch (From Wheat)".

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