In our family, we called it “the missing enzyme.” No one thought it was serious, but it seemed there were certain foods that created havoc in the digestive tracts of my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. We’d never even heard of gluten at that point. Of course, we have since discovered that gluten can have a negative effect on much more than the digestive tract and for many more people than once thought. Have some strange malady for which you cannot uncover the cause? It’s very possible gluten is the culprit.
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, most commonly wheat, rye, barley and a few others. It’s also often hidden in processed foods. Up to 1/3 of the population is thought to have some level of gluten sensitivity. Look, cows have how many stomachs? Five, I believe. That’s what they use to digest grains. We humans? One measly stomach. It doesn’t look good.
A new friend was recently diagnosed with a gluten intolerance and is feeling rather sad and deprived. I wanted to pass along to her (and any others interested) a bit of advice as a 4-year veteran of a gluten-free lifestyle.
Don’t waste a lot of money on gluten-free (GF) products, such as cookies and breads. They’re not as good as the real thing and never will be. That said – there are a few products worth having if you absolutely cannot live without some bread-like foods in your life:
- Betty Crocker has a new line of GF baking mixes and the chocolate chip cookies do the trick. Plus, they are easy to make. There are even brownies and cake mixes available. Gotta have brownie bars? Possible now and more affordable thanks to the folks at Betty Crocker.
- Adore the occasional pancake? Pamela’s Gluten-Free Pancake and Baking Mix is a must-have for the pantry. Delicious with GF chocolate chips!! Buy the big bag – it’s more cost-effective. You can use this like Bisquick.
- If you like sandwiches or toast, Glutino’s Harvest Corn bread stands out. It is best toasted and it’s a good idea to keep it frozen if you don’t eat it every day. My son likes using it for lunch sandwiches and finds it holds up best if toasted and prepared the morning he plans to eat it.
- Amy’s Rice Crust Cheese Pizza is an adequate substitute if you’ve gotta have pizza and is especially good with veggie and pepperoni add-ons. There is also a personal-sized version that is good when there’s just one of you eating.
- As for pasta, I recommend any Tinkyada brand, which includes spaghetti, penne, macaroni, etc. To me, you cannot tell the difference from regular pasta.
All of these are more expensive than gluten-filled items, but if you feel deprived without them, they provide good alternatives. Beware, these are generally higher in carbs, calories, and lower in fiber than traditional breads and baked goods.
Mostly, it’s just as easy to skip bread and pasta and stick to the basics: meat, cheese, veggies and fruits. Cooked spinach provides a great bed for spaghetti and other red/white sauces. Spaghetti squash also works well if you like that kind of thing. Just shop around the edges of the supermarket and you’ll be in good shape! Avoid frozen and highly processed foods. Try out other grains, like quinoa, which is great cooked in GF chicken broth. Potatoes can also be your friend, and sweet potatoes are more nutritionally dense than white potatoes. Of course, brown rice is still available, though you have to watch the Rice-a-Roni and other prepared rice dishes – those often have gluten.
As a matter of fact, watch out for hidden gluten in:
- Soy sauce: always check the ingredients.
- Cream of … soups: there are a few lines of GF soups, but the vast majority of Cream of Mushroom, Chicken, Celery, etc. contain gluten. This is an item you don’t automatically think to check.
- Multi-vitamins and medicines: believe it or not, some multi-vitamins contain gluten.
- Beer: hello, hops?
- Malt also contains gluten, which is sometimes hidden in things like Rice Krispies, which you’d think would be gluten-free.
- Be careful about french fries, because these are often cooked in fryers used to prepare breaded items like onion rings, chicken nuggets, etc. Those with celiac disease or serious intolerance may react.
- Oats are still up for debate. Some say they are never safe due to cross-contamination with grains in the fields. Others believe they are fine. Best to find an organic version you like and just try them. You should know immediately if they’ll present an issue.
- Grated cheeses: Some grated cheeses (especially mozzerella and cheddar) are packaged with flour, so always check the ingredients on that packaging.
Check out the Celiac Solution web site for a good overview on hidden gluten. Bottom-line: check labels carefully and be aware of some of the codes for gluten-containing ingredients.
Resign yourself to gluten-free living, because frankly, you can’t afford not to. I find it much easier to resist pizza or a pound cake because I know absolutely that I will pay (now and later) for eating it. Still working on cheesecake, since you know I can just avoid that graham cracker crust and still enjoy all that creamy gluten-free goodness! It’s incredible how quickly I was able to find all of the GF fatty foods still available to me!
My son, who is 12, has been GF since the age of four, and it has made all the difference in both his diet and level of fitness. He is very aware of what he eats, and has a much healthier diet than 95% of his friends. Though he is still sometimes saddened when others enjoy cupcakes, cookies, and pizza, he realizes that in the long run, he is better off. Being GF provides a great excuse to enjoy healthy eating, with extra incentive to do it right!