So What Is This Gluten Stuff, Anyway?

If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re either just starting a gluten free diet, or are struggling to stay on a gluten free diet, or are ready to really dive into gluten free cooking and baking. The first few emails that you’ll get from me will focus on starting a gluten free diet.

If you’re way past that point – don’t stop reading! At the end of each email you’ll find a challenge that’s aimed at the experienced gluten free crowd. Gluten free newbies get a pass on the homework for now!

*** Getting Started! (Yes, That’s A Good Thing!) ***

Starting a gluten free diet can be overwhelming. I know that. It can also be terribly isolating, stressful, scary, and depressing. Acknowledge that, and then, if you can, stop thinking about all of those negatives for the next few minutes.

Focus on this one thing:

You have one of the very few illnesses that can be treated without drugs!

Yes, you’ll have to change your diet, but you don’t have to remember to take a pill every morning and you don’t have to worry about potentially dangerous side effects.

And, just in case you were worried. Gluten free is delicious. If you want, you will still be able to enjoy doughnuts and pizza and biscuits and bread. I promise!

*** What Is Gluten? ***

Let’s start with the basics. To put things simply, gluten is a storage protein in grains. If you need to be gluten free, then you are going to be specifically avoiding the gluten that is found in wheat, rye, barley. and wheat variants like spelt, triticale, durum, and semolina.

Bread bakers love gluten because it’s what allows wheat bread to expand and get airy and light. Unfortunately many of our bodies hate gluten because it can cause harmful immune system activity, allergic responses, and inflammation in a multitude of body parts. Boo to that!

For our purposes, gluten is the enemy and it must be eradicated! Sounds simple enough, but the grains that contain gluten are used in a lot of foods that you wouldn’t expect.

*** So, Where Do You Find Gluten? ***

This is a bit simplistic, but if the food is made from whole grains, can be purchased in a bakery, contains bread or pasta in any form, has cookie crumbs, or is a condensed soup, then it more than likely has gluten in it.

For those of you who do a lot of cooking, another way to think about this may be to consider what foods have flour as an ingredient. The main ingredient in most baked goods is wheat flour. Soups and sauces are often thickened with flour. Fried foods are dredged in flour. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Gluten can also be in some foods where you wouldn’t expect them. Soy sauce is a classic example. And sometimes gluten containing grains have been added to foods where it really has no business – like salsa, or ice cream, or roasted nuts. Now, not all brands of salsa and ice cream and roasted nuts will contain gluten, but some do.

The best way to determine whether a food contains gluten is to read the label. There’s not room here to go into a lot of detail about label reading, but suffice it to say (for now) that if the label says the food contains wheat, rye, barley. spelt, triticale, durum or semolina, then you can’t eat it. If the food is certified gluten-free then it is safe for you to eat.

*** And Now the Foods You Can Eat ***

I hate to focus on the foods that I can’t eat. I’d much rather think about all of the delicious food that I can eat. The biggest category by far are the naturally gluten free foods. You can’t get much simper than whole, unprocessed foods like

* Fruit
* Vegetables and greens
* Meat
* Beans, legumes, and nuts

When I say whole and unprocessed, I mean food that is as close to its natural state as possible. This is the food that you’ll find on the outer edges of the grocery store, at your local farmer’s market, and in the garden or pasture of your green-thumbed neighbor.

*** Gluten Free Grains ***

You’ll also quickly become acquainted with (and love) the gluten-free grains. They will be your friend when you’re looking to carb-load for a long run, or indulge in a bit of comfort food. In this category we have:

* Rice
* Corn
* Amaranth
* Buckwheat
* Quinoa
* Teff

You’re probably never heard of most of these, and that’s okay. You don’t have to try them all this week. Just know that they are out there, if you want them. I’ll tell you all about gluten free flours in another email, but just know now that all of the gluten free grains, as well as many beans, are also available as flours.

*** Packaged Gluten Free Foods ***

Hopefully you’ll also find that your grocery store carries at least a few packaged foods that are certified gluten free. A certified gluten free food has undergone 3rd party verification by the certifying group. These are the safest packaged foods for you to eat. You can see pictures of the gluten free certification labels here, here, and here.

You’ll also see foods with a gluten free label. If a food manufacturer uses this label, then it is supposed to mean that the foods is naturally gluten free and that tests have shown that the food meets the proposed regulatory definition of gluten free, which is <20 ppm (parts per million).

However, the FDA has never finalized the gluten free label regulations, third party verification is not required, and many well respected gluten free authorities feel that the 20 ppm threshhold is too high.

Theoretically, these foods should be safe to eat, but your beliefs about the integrity of certain food manufacturers should inform your purchasing decisions. Some individuals who react strongly to the ingestion of gluten have become sick after eating foods with a gluten-free label.

That's all for today. If you're new to being gluten free, you get a pass on homework. If not, then keep reading. In the next lesson we'll cover multiple food allergies and what you need to know to incorporate other food intolerances into a gluten free diet.

*** If You’re Struggling to Stay Gluten Free ***

There are many reasons that you may struggle on a gluten free diet. One reason may be that you’re having trouble thinking of foods that are safe for you to eat. If that’s you, then I challenge you to complete the following assignment:

I want you to amaze yourself with the incredible variety of foods that you can eat. There are a number of ways that you can do this, so be creative. If you like to eat out, do a search for gluten free restaurant menus. They don’t have to be in your area – I just want you to see what the possibilities are.

If you prefer not to cook from scratch, then spend some time online looking at all of the different packaged gluten free foods. Find gluten free bakeries that will ship to your door. If you do like to cook, then head to the grocery without the intention of buying anything. Just make a list of all of the naturally gluten free foods that you find in the produce and meat sections.

*** If You’re Comfortably Gluten Free ***

If you’re ready for a cooking challenge, oh boy do I have one for you.! Find a fruit or a vegetable , or a cut of meat that you’ve never used and cook it this week. Or, if you want a bigger challenge, see how many new fruits, vegetables and cuts of meat you can use this week. Pick something that scares you. Pick something that you’ve never heard of. And, be sure to blog about it or write back and tell me about it.

If you don’t love to cook, I’ve got a challenge for you too. It’s so easy to get in a comfortable rut when you’re doing your shopping. This week take a look at everything in your refrigerator and cabinets and read the label. See if any gluten is sneaking into your diet. And, when you’re at the grocery store pick up a few products that you don’s usually buy. You might find that some of the brands you used to love now have gluten free labels.

Talk to you soon!

- Mary Frances