In 1993 became ill enough that I was told by my doctor that I would spend the rest on my life deathly ill and in and out of surgery.
After a year of this illness my now wife and I bought a house. That very week I quit my stressful job as a software development project leader and started consulting. While my doctor had insisted that stress had nothing to do with my disease, I quickly started feeling somewhat better. I was taken off the harsh medication, but was not in the clear. My digestion was all messed up.
Two years later my wife’s brother was dating a woman who had a condition known as Celiac disease, otherwise known as gluten-intolerance. My gastroenterologist was firm that my condition had nothing to do with what food I ate, but I decided to try the gluten-free diet anyway. What could it hurt? At my next check-up my gastroenterologist declared it a miracle.
In the years since my miracle, gluten-intolerance has gone from an unknown condition in the USA to a common diagnosis. My gastroenterologist became a believer in more than miracles and is now active in local Celiac support.
While tests show I am not Celiac, I am gluten intolerant. This distinction is another issue I will save for another post.
The hard journey I had going gluten-free is no longer as difficult as it once was. Back then I discovered that in Europe they had been testing for Celiac for many decades, and the USA was way behind. What was well understood in other countries has since spread to the USA. This is why you’ll still find a lot of products are imported from Canada, Australia, and Europe. But shopping for Gluten-free food is no longer difficult in the USA. In fact, there are now plenty of restaurants, bakeries, and products in regular grocery stores all across the country. You can easily find beer, pasta, and cake mixes. Recently the FDA has implemented allergy labeling. Checking a product can be as easy as looking on the ingredients list to see if you can find the label “Contains: ” and see if GLUTEN is listed.
So, in the past I would have had to write up a very detailed set of what to watch for and how to find gluten-free foods. No longer, as there’s tons of information available on-line, but I understand that it’s still overwhelming for those just getting started, so here are some tips from my own experiences.
Markets typically have two gluten-free sections. One with packaged foods and mixes, and another in the freezer section. Because gluten-free bread can dry out faster than wheat bread, you’ll almost always find the bread and other baked goods in the freezer or refrigerator.
Some Products We Frequently Buy:
- UDI’s bread
- Tinkyada pasta
- Annie’s Mac ‘n Cheese
- Kellogg’s has Rice Krispies and Rice Chex that say Gluten-Free on the box
- Betty Crocker cake mixes are easy to find, and most frostings are gluten-free
- Pamala’s packaged cookies and their mixes are very good
- Hodgson Mills pancake mix
- Kinnikinnick or Celiac Specialties donuts
The Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide is an option if you’d like a short-cut resource to see what’s gluten-free without having to weed through the store.
I’ve found that most cities I travel to have local gluten-free bakeries. Google “gluten-free bakery” plus your state or city to see if you have one. We have three within 20 minutes from our house, one only a mile away. If you don’t have a bakery near you, Whole Foods has their own gluten-free bakery and has many products in their freezers. Trader Joes has a gluten-free product list. You can also buy products at health food stores and on-line stores. Amazon has a lot of gluten-free food items, and there are many specialty stores and bakeries on-line that specialize in gluten-free baked goods.
If you like to bake, you can certainly bake your own recipes. Gluten-free baked good are sometimes a little different in texture and density, but many recipes taste as good as their non-gluten-free counterparts. My current favorite pre-mixed flour is Better Batter Gluten Free Flour. You can often take a wheat flour recipe and use Better Batter flour instead. Their web site includes a huge number of tested recipes. I came up with a Chocolate Babka that my daughter is totally addicted to.
You can also find many pre-made mixes. Even big companies like Betty Crocker and King Arthur have gluten-free flour and mixes in many neighborhood groceries. You can even get gluten-free Bisquick. Also, watch for the Bob’s Red Mill display as they package most every type of gluten-free flour. If your local grocery does not have these flours, look for a health food store or Internet store.
You’ll find that every cookbook you buy will use a different flour blend. Each cook likes to develop their recipes with different flours, which keeps cooking interesting. I keep many bags of flours and starches on hand, many in the freezer. I also got into the habit of actually grinding my own rice flour. I have a The Kitchen Mill by KTEC and will do five or ten pounds at a time. Hit Costco and you can often buy 25 pounds of white rice for about $10. This was more important back in the beginning when rice, tapioca, and potato flours were the flour mix of choice, but I still do it once a year because it’s a lot cheaper than buying preground rice flour.
Note that most gluten-free recipes will call for Xanthan Gum or sometimes guar gum. You usually need an ingredient to help bind the flour and replace the gluten. Better Batter uses pectin for this purpose. Some recipes use gelatin or agar agar. This is a difference you’ll find in most baked goods recipes.
We find a lot of recipes out on the web, and use the following cookbooks the most:
1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes (1,000 Recipes)
The Gluten-Free Gourmet: Living Well without Wheat
The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread: More Than 200 Wheat-Free Recipes
As a first gluten-free baking experiment, make brownies! I’ve found they’re always good, even if you can’t cook, especially if you add extra chocolate and some chips.
Many people get upset about not being able to eat pizza, but don’t. In our area there are four chains and a number of individual restaurants that do gluten-free pizza. Some are better than others, so have some fun trying each. In our area Buddy’s Pizza has a tasty soft crust, Amichi’s has a nice bready crisp crust, Cottage Inn is just okay, and Pizzeria Uno’s is like total cardboard. When up in Lansing we found a fabulous pizza place. There was another in a party store in Ann Arbor. Check the Internet to see if there are any gluten-free pizza places in your area. It can be hit or miss, but when you find a hit, pizza can be comfort food of the gods for someone gluten-free.
You’ll find many chain restaurants have their own gluten-free menus. For example, for American style Chinese food, P.F.Changs and Pei Wei both have gluten menus. Outback Steakhouse does as well. For fast food, we typically do Wendy’s where I have chili and a baked potato. Most Indian dishes are gluten-free, just avoid the nan bread (this is so sad, which is why you must learn to bake your own.) Thai is often gluten-free, but be sure it does not have wheat in the fish or oyster sauce. Mexican, when only corn tortillas is used, is usually fine. Soy sauce often contains wheat, but some soy sauces are gluten-free (usually I get Tamari Soy Sauce, Wheat Free, Organic at a grocery), so check. Many nicer restaurants will handle dietary requests very well, though I’ve found it’s best to call ahead or arrive early so you can ask the chef personally. Don’t assume your server understands what wheat is. I’ve had people explain to me that white bread does not have wheat in it, only wheat bread does! This simple issue with words confuses many people. You need to be careful of cross contamination, especially in deep fryers used for both breaded onion rings or other breaded items and french fries; ask if they have a dedicated frier for their fries. Also, beware of packaged foods like vegetables or hash browns which sometimes include flour to keep the products from clumping when packaged. Ask the chef to check their processed foods and not just assume. I like to eat at places that prepare from scratch. Fresh cut potatoes taste better as well.
We use The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide when traveling, though if you have a Smart Phone you can often use the web to find places to eat.
The Urban Spoon website is great to find restaurants since you can narrow down by city and the “Gluten-Free” category, and each restaurant has ratings with comments.
Keeping kids gluten-free takes some planning. When our daughter was two and wasn’t growing, we decided to put her on the diet. She quickly caught up with the other kids. When she was five we tried taking her off the diet and she was constantly complaining about stomach aches. So, she’s following the diet as well. Sometimes it’s hard on her, but she doesn’t like the stomach aches, and she watches what she eats on her own. To make this as easy as possible, we keep a snack box and birthday cupcakes on-hand at home and and at her school. She never has to go without, though she doesn’t get exactly what the other kids are having. We also call ahead for birthdays and gatherings and make sure to bring what ever we need. We use a local gluten-free bakery when we don’t want to bake her own birthday cake. There are plenty of snacks, cookies, and cakes available. Some we get at the grocery, some at health food stores, some we make. There are even gluten-free ice cream cones. We’ve found local restaurants that have gluten-free bread for sandwiches and will make french toast. She’s happy to eat hotdogs without the bun, and we sometimes bring her pizza if we know that’s what the other kids are getting. As listed above, Tinkyada pasta and Annie’s Mac ‘n Cheese is great. We make dumplings for soup, pierogi, pancakes, brownies, pizza, whatever. There are tons of packaged cookies, including K-Too’s Choclate Cream Cookies which are the next best thing to Oreos. Kids are adaptable, but we can make it easier.
For the beer drinkers out there, there has been plenty of progress. While I have yet to find a good stout, there are many gluten-free pilsners, usually made with sorghum. Redbridge is the most common. Another option is cider.
So, while starting out on the diet you may feel overwhelmed with all the food you can’t eat, there’s tons of food out there that is gluten-free. I’m covering just the “replacement for wheat” options since they are what people are most curious about, but in reality most food is not made of this one ingredient. You may have to plan ahead a bit when going out, but it’s not difficult once you get the hang of it all. Just don’t let someone convince you to cheat on the diet. There are simply too many good gluten-free foods, and too many replacements for wheat to make yourself sick.