What do you really know about gluten? That it’s a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye? That people are sensitive to it, or that some are making its avoidance a go-to diet?
If you feel you know the basics, it’s time to really dissect the craze and find out where gluten may be lurking.
Gluten: For Better or For Worse?
“There is nothing inherently healthier about a gluten-free diet.” Time and again statements like this show up when you peruse the internet trying to find answers on the gluten diet debate. So while idols like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow swear up and down on their “gluten detox,” it isn’t a diet to jump into blindly.
But what is it about a gluten-free diet that may not be healthier? First, remember that avoiding gluten isn’t what some view as “bad”—rather it’s the products we are choosing to sub in. Eating fruits and vegetables is never a bad thing, of course. The trouble comes when trying to make gluten-free products behave like their glutened counterparts—to simulate that texture and fluffiness everyone craves, manufacturers add extra sugar and fat.
Another problem is that gluten-free products typically contain less iron, and vitamins B and D. A study by Swedish researchers looked at celiac disease patients after they’d gone gluten-free for 10 years. Half of the subjects had vitamin deficiencies and also high levels of homocysteine, a risk factor for heart disease, vascular disease, and strokes. If the food you are ingesting doesn’t have the nutrients the body needs, you need to get them from somewhere else or bad things are in store.
And gluten-free must be low calorie, right? Doesn’t it just sound low calorie?
Not necessarily. Some products on the market today can contain as many calories as the gluten version—and sometimes they carry double the calories! (This goes back to adding extra sugar and fat to make these foods palatable to American consumers.)
To avoid falling into this unhealthy trap, either avoid altogether or carefully read the labels on gluten-free cookies, breads and bagels, prepackaged desserts, frozen dinners, and cereals to ensure healthiness. Most of these products will be full of fat, sugar, and calories. Breads and bagels are high in saturated fat, sometimes even more than traditional bread products. Some popular gluten-free desserts have over 500 calories and more than 30 grams of fat and sugar. And don’t rely on those frozen dinners: they are just as bad for you as the TV dinners you’ve heard so much about. They have enough sodium to last you for the entire day!
Granted, not all of these products are bad, but reading the label will save you from making mistakes that balloon your waistline.
Is This Food Gluten-Free or Not?
Food has become problematic these days: beers, soup bases, cereals, chocolates, pastas, rice, dressings, deli meats, seasonings, licorice, flavored teas, and flavored coffee drinks can easily carry gluten. Even your gum might contain some form of gluten. And tea bags sometimes use this protein to keep the bag closed. Tea makers also sometimes add barley in the herbal varieties.
Processed foods have an even higher chance of squeaking under the gluten radar. Sometimes the gluten-free determination must also factor in where the ingredient is made. If the label contains any of these words in the ingredients list, it is a sign there is gluten in the product:
Emulsifiers, flavorings, hydrolyzed plant protein, natural flavorings, stabilizers, starch, caramel color, spice, and herb blends.
According to Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide by Shelley Case, RD, any of these items on labels can be a facade for gluten:
Barley (flakes, flour, pearl), breading and bread stuffing, brewer’s yeast, bulgur, durum, farro, hydrolyzed wheat protein, Kamut, anything malt (extract, syrup, flavoring, vinegar), malted milk, matzo, modified wheat starch, oatmeal, oat bran/flavor, rye bread/flour, seitan, semolina, spelt, triticale, wheat bran/flour/germ/starch, atta, dinkel, einkorn, emmer, farina, and fo.
Because “gluten” is now a buzzword, many restaurants are jumping in and making meals gluten-free, or are working to make their entire establishment gluten-free. Still it’s best to do your research before eating out.
There are organizations out there to help in this area. Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG, found at gluten.net) is a nonprofit organization that helps those with gluten-related disorders live full, healthy, and productive lives. GIG also provides education manuals, training materials, and menu reviews to restaurants looking to provide meals for gluten-free diners.
So what can you eat? Some safe appetizer options are veggies, salads with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or red wine vinegar on the side, caprese salads, steamed edamame, or steamed shrimp. Any entrée that uses chicken, seafood, pork tenderloin, or lean beef, and is grilled, broiled, baked, or roasted is usually safe. To top it off, fresh fruit or fruit sorbets are best when looking for a dessert. Depending on the brand, chocolate or vanilla ice cream may also be an option.
Remember, even French fries—which are inherently gluten-free—are typically used in a common fryer with the rest of the food in the restaurant. Always ask questions!
The best way to avoid gluten is to eat at home. Not sure what to make? Check out naturalsolutionsmag.com for some new and delicious recipes from trusted companies like Pamela’s Products, Bob’s Red Mill, and Pacific Foods.
Gluten is everywhere, but there are people out there—dietitians for instance—who can help you in the process. Once you get the hang of living a gluten-free lifestyle, it won’t seem so daunting. Just remember that asking questions, researching, and learning will help you on your gluten-free journey.
8 Tricks to Ensure Gluten Safety While Eating Out
>> 1) Ask questions! Do the chefs know all the ingredients? Does the waiter understand your diet? What are the procedures to ensure safety?
>> 2) Make reservations. This allows the staff to prepare for your needs and also gives you time to explain the situation to the manager.
>> 3) Bring a gluten-free dining card. These cards will explain what gluten is, where it can be found, and how to avoid cross-contamination.
>> 4) Wear a medical alert bracelet. If the worst-case scenario unfolds, it’s best to be prepared.
>> 5) Avoid typical gluten culprits. Fried foods, sauces, stews, pot pies, and soups usually contain gluten. Buffets and desserts are also questionable.
>> 6) Keep your order simple. By ordering foods as simple as possible—a salad with dressing on the side, for instance—you will be able to control what goes on your plate.
>> 7) Be polite. Choose to be polite when talking with the waitstaff, kitchen, and management. This will ensure that you and your food are being handled with care.
>> 8) When in doubt, go without. Sometimes it is easier to just say no to the menu items in question.
Gluten Lurking in the Kitchen
There are always overlooked areas when going gluten-free, especially in the kitchen. Try out some of these tips to avoid cross-contamination in a home that isn’t totally gluten-free!
>> Prepare gluten-free foods on separate surfaces.
>> Thoroughly clean shared utensils.
>> Use two separate toasters or opt for a toaster oven with extra racks for gluten-free items.
>> Beware of crumbs that end up in condiments like jellies and dips.
>> Put gluten-free foods on the top shelf in pantries and refrigerators.
Gluten in My…What?
So you’ve mastered going gluten-free in the things you eat, but what about everything else? While gluten has this amazing ability to make items elastic and fluffy, it also helps items bind, which is why gluten can be found in surprising places. Glutenfreern.com is a great resource to check when attempting to be gluten-free in every aspect of your life. Nadine Grzeskowiak has been an RN for 18 years and was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006. Now an educator, Nadine made a list in the blog on that site. Here are just some of the places gluten is hiding:
>> Beauty products This can be a deceiving category. Gluten can be found in ingredients such as: Avena sativa (oat kernel flour), cyclodextrin, dextrin, dextrin palmitate, hydrolyzed oat flour, secale cereale (rye) seed flour, wheat amino acids, wheat germ amidopropyl ethyldimonium ethosulfate, yeast extract, and many other ingredients! Check out glutenfreern.com to find the complete list.
>> Play-Doh Yes, even Play-Doh is not safe. There are plenty of recipes for a homemade gluten-free version online, however.
>> Medicine Gluten can be found in both over-the-counter and prescribed medications because of its binding properties. Talk to your pharmacist, call manufacturers, and read labels to ensure any medication you are taking is gluten-free.
>> Significant other This could be the biggest problem. If you live in a household where one of you is gluten-free and the other is not, the one with gluten sensitivity/celiac disease can be contaminated from kissing. Having mouthwash handy makes this less problematic.