You see it all the time, “gluten free” bread, tortillas and crackers line the shelves of grocery stores and your favorite pizza joint now asks if you’d like gluten-free crust on your order. Unless you have a medical condition like celiac disease, most people have no idea if gluten is good or bad, much less if they should be omitting it from their diet.
The number of people with celiac disease has risen in the U.S. in recent years to as many as three million people, causing the term to become more popular on packaged products and in restaurants. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and different blends of these grains.
Gluten causes the small intestine to become inflamed in people with celiac. Over time this inflammation damages the intestinal lining and prevents the body from absorbing the nutrients that it needs to stay healthy. This can lead to malnutrition and delayed growth that can later cause additional problems like anemia, osteoporosis, thyroid problems, diabetes and even certain types of cancer.
In order for a food to use the “gluten free” label, the FDA requires that the product contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, be free of any type of rye, wheat, barley or blend of these grains, as well as any ingredient that comes from them and hasn’t been processed to remove the gluten to the allowable amount.
Most whole, natural, unprocessed foods are already gluten free. So consuming foods like beans, eggs, unbreaded meats and fish, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, seeds and nuts are going to be your best bets. Just make sure that they have not been processed or mixed with any additives or preservatives that may contain any hidden gluten byproducts.
As for grains, flours or other starches, there are many safe alternatives available to you. Many packaged products will now say whether they are gluten free or not, but it is better to be safe than sorry, so look for rice, corn, nut and seed flours, or flours made of tubers like sweet potatoes or arrowroot. Legume flours made of soy or chickpeas will also work for those avoiding gluten. The key is to avoid anything containing barley, rye, wheat or any crossblend like triticale. And if you are visiting a restaurant, try searching for one online that caters to your needs, like The Steeping Room in Austin, Texas, who marks approved items on the menu.
Some foods are more versatile than others when it comes to replacing gluten-filled flours. Rice, corn and beans are easy replacement ingredients in recipes or fill in as a healthy side dish. Nuts are also very useful in gluten-free cooking; use them to give cooked meat a nice crunch instead of using breading or any type of batter. You can also make nut butters that add a nice flavor to casseroles and other dishes, or just throw some on a rice cake as an alternative to the classic PB and J. If you are craving cereal, try swapping your usual for grits, buckwheat or a rice pudding.
If you think that going gluten free might be for you, try these easy swaps for a couple weeks and see how you feel. You might find out that this easy transition could make you feel great.
• Grits for oatmeal
Especially good on a cold morning, corn grits is an easy replacement for your bowl of oats that may be processed in factories that can cross contaminate.
• Brown rice flour for whole-grain flour
Being gluten free doesn’t mean that you have to completely give up all breads and baked goods. Brown rice flour is naturally free of gluten. Experiment with it and you’ll quickly learn how to get the taste and texture you love.
• Quinoa pasta for whole-wheat pasta
Pasta lovers are miserable at the thought of giving up their weekly spaghetti or linguine meals, but with quinoa pasta becoming more accessible in grocery stores you don’t have to give it up.
• Corn tortillas for whole-wheat tortillas
There are so many styles of corn tortillas available that you are bound to find one that you love as much as flour. The taste and texture are about the same, but they have less fat and calories on top of being gluten free.
• Zucchini slices for lasagna noodles
Zucchini is so versatile that you can use them in your lasagna and barely notice the difference. You’ll also get a boost of nutrition and slash the calories.
If you feel that you might be sensitive or have an intolerance to gluten, the best thing for you to do is visit your doctor and find out for sure. It’s also important to keep track of what you eat and pay attention to how you feel afterward so that you can relay that information accurately to your doctor.