Whether you are eating gluten-free or need to feed someone who needs to eat gluten-free, it can be overwhelming and daunting at first. You will find some helpful ideas here to help you get started.
First, let’s understand what gluten is. It’s the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Just like lactose is a sugar found in milk products that some people cannot tolerate (“lactose-intolerant”), gluten is a protein that some people cannot tolerate. And just as lactose causes certain physical reactions in people with lactose intolerance, reactions to gluten can include headaches, fatigue, mind “fog,” impaired concentration, joint/bone/muscle pain, heartburn, urgent bowel movements, increased appetite, gastrointestinal distress, bloating, cramping, flatulence, skin rashes, eczema, psoriasis, respiratory issues including asthma, autoimmune diseases, behavior issues like ADD/ADHD, autism, schizophrenia and more. Recently we discovered a link between gluten and canker sores/mouth ulcers in my oldest son.
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease involving gluten. If a person with this condition eats or drinks gluten-containing foods or beverages, their small intestine is damaged, preventing nutrients from being optimally absorbed; this can result in malnutrition and other symptoms.
In a nutshell, gluten causes inflammation, and inflammation is at the root of many diseases. Anything that ends with “-itis” (arthritis, bronchitis, colitis, bursitis, pancreatitis, bronchialitis, sinusitis, etc.) means that there is inflammation happening, and getting rid of gluten could improve the condition, especially when the condition is chronic.
Where Is Gluten Found?
Understand that wheat (gluten) is in a LOT of foods (and added to a lot of foods) that you may not think of, so READING LABELS is critical! And generally, the fewer the ingredients the healthier the product and the easier it is to determine whether it contains wheat or gluten. The less processed a food/beverage is, the less likely it may have hidden sources of gluten. Unfortunately, wheat can be added to products and show up on a label as “modified food starch,” “natural seasoning/flavoring,” etc.; these terms do not always mean gluten is present, but in order to avoid hidden sources of gluten you must be like a detective.
If you aren’t sure if you have an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity to wheat/gluten, you need to be very strict in avoiding it for at least 6-8 weeks. Also, you need to be very observant as to what your body is doing or how it is changing as you change your eating. For example, does your skin clear up? Do you have less gas/bowel issues? Do you have less frequent/severe headaches? Do you have more energy or not feel as tired? Are you able to think more clearly? Etc.
There are lots of good-tasting GF foods out there; going to a health food store is a great way to see what is available. You can find GF pastas, snacks, cereals, sauces, brownies, pizza crust, cookies and cookie mixes, frozen breads, muffins, donuts, and much more. The prices vary from reasonable to expensive. I have also found great deals on GF flours and products on Amazon.com (which is super convenient because it’s delivered right to my door). Some of my favorite brands for GF foods are Arrowroot (great mixes for cookies, pizza crust and brownies at health food stores), Bob’s Red Mill (good pancake mix and flours), Pamela’s Products (great cookies!), DeBoles (pastas), Tinkyáda Pasta Joy (pastas), Schär (sweets & treats).
More and more grocery stores are carrying GF items in their health-food areas, but don’t forget to check the Asian aisle for options as well. The Asian section often has rice crackers (who doesn’t like crackers & cheese?) and rice pastas that are less expensive than similar items in the organic or health-food section.
It’s time to get into the details. First we’ll go over the foods to avoid, then the foods you can enjoy! The KEY is READING LABELS and looking for the words “wheat” (and also “rye” & “barley”).
- Bread, anything breaded (like chicken nuggets, fish), donuts, bagels, English muffins, rolls, biscuits, crumpets, scones, muffins, crescents, bread sticks, fritters, hotdog/hamburger buns, etc.
- Crackers (saltine, graham, etc.)
- Pasta, noodles
- Stuffing/Stove Top®
- Some chips, especially flavored varieties (like Pringles®, some Doritos®, etc.)
- Most cereals, puffed wheat (even some “corn flakes” or “rice cereal”), cream of wheat
- Flour tortillas
- Pizza (it’s the crust!)
- Pancakes, French toast, waffles, toaster pastries
- Fruit bars/Cereal bars
- Most flavored rice packages
- Regular oats (if you are super sensitive)
- Some canned fruit pie fillings
- Some frozen French fries
- Some canned/frozen vegetables in sauce
- Some relishes/pickles
- Many soups including cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, etc. and dry mix soups
- Some broths/stocks (ready-made or cubes)
- Some canned baked beans
- Some sauces (spaghetti, pizza, etc.), some sauce mixes, and some marinades
- Some salad dressings, mayonnaises, mustards
- Some soy sauces
- Gravy (unless it’s thickened with corn starch instead of flour)
- Some seasonings (for meats, salads, tacos, chili, onion soup mix, etc.)
- Some dry-roasted nuts
- Some baking powder, baking soda
Dairy & Meat
- Some prepared meats, some lunch meats, some hotdogs, sausage, salami (though it doesn’t always say on the label)
- Most frozen meatballs
- Some grated cheeses (pre-grated) like parmesan
- Some cheese spreads
- Some cottage cheese & yogurt (FiberOne® yogurt or FiberOne® cottage cheese have wheat! . . . go figure . . .)
Sweets & snacks
- Some candy (like Twix, Kit-Kat because of the cracker/cookie/wafer)
- Malted desserts
- Some granola bars
- Most licorice
- Ice cream cones, waffle cones
- Pies (pie crust & sometimes the filling), cakes, cookies, brownies, etc.
- Some peanuts (the package of peanuts I received on an airplane had “wheat starch” on the label!!)
- Beer, ale, lager, stout, Guinness
- Malted beverages
- Some coffee substitutes & creamers
- Many prepared one-person meals (like Lean Cuisine®, etc.)
- Ingredients listed on labels that may contain gluten: cornstarch, dextrin, malt, malted drink powders, malt extract, malt or grain vinegar, maltodextrin, modified starch, oats, starch, wheat starch, textured vegetable protein
- Some medications (read the label and speak with your pharmacist)
- You may eat the gluten-free equivalent of any of the items above (example: GF ice cream cones)
Enjoy (after reading the label! Look for “gluten-free”):
- Wheat-/gluten-free bread (store-bought or homemade)
- Wheat-/gluten-free pasta (Dynasty® Mifun Rice Sticks – like angel hair pasta)
- Rice (plain, unflavored)
- Quinoa (plain, unflavored)
- Most corn tortillas, corn taco shells (read the label – I did recently find “corn tortillas” that contained wheat!)
- Oatmeal, regular (if you’re not sensitive to cross-contamination – otherwise, consume certified GF oats)
- Rice Chex®, Corn Chex®, Rice Krispies® Gluten Free, Kix cereals (and others)
- Most corn/tortilla chips (read the label – there are some brands that contain wheat!)
- Most rice cakes
- Plain potato chips (not flavored) and some Doritos® (check label!)
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Frozen fruits and vegetables (be careful of “sauces” added to some vegetables)
- Most canned fruits and vegetables (if combined with a sauce, read label carefully)
- Most salsas, some pasta sauces, most pizza sauces
- Spices in their pure form
- Vanilla & Vanilla extract in their pure form
- Most cocoa powders
- Most broths and some Progresso® soups
- Dried beans, legumes and plain, canned legumes (double check labels)
- Peanut butter
- Most jellies/jams
- Most mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup
- Apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, wine vinegar
- Pure sugar, honey, maple syrup
- Oils (vegetable, corn, coconut, etc.)
Dairy & Meat
- Plain meats (ie. Chicken breast, fish, tuna, burger, pork, etc. unsliced, unmixed with other ingredients)
- Hormel “Natural Choice” Lunchmeat is GF (so is Buddig® Premium Quality)
- Cheese (esp. Kraft®) (be careful about the already shredded varieties – “mold inhibitor” can be a form of gluten; avoid this by buying the blocks of cheese & shredding yourself)
- Milk, cream cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt (but not FiberOne®)
- Butter, margarines
Sweets & snacks
- Plain nuts & seeds (without flavoring)
- Most fruit snacks/fruit leather
- Popcorn (if flavored, read the label)
- Jell-O® pudding mixes (except ones containing cookies, etc.)
- Most applesauce cups & pudding cups (except ones containing cookies, etc.)
- Pure chocolate
- Some Candy (3 Musketeers, Baby Ruth, Bit-O-Honey, Butterfinger, Hershey’s Kisses, Starburst, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Rolos, Sweet Tarts, York Peppermint Patties, and many more!)
- Most ice creams, sherbets (but not with cookie or brownie chunks)
- Soymilk, rice milk, almond milk, coconut milk (without malt or maltodextrin)
- Fruit juices, lime juice, lemon juice
- Wine, liqueurs, spirits, GF beer
- Coffee, tea
- Ingredients on labels that are not associated with gluten: caramel color, dextrose, glucose, glucose powder, glucose syrup, wheat glucose syrup
These lists are not exhaustive! There are other foods that do or do not contain gluten/wheat that are not mentioned here. Read labels and add to this list.
Name Brand Products
Throughout this cookbook, I will refer to name-brand items that I use often in preparing my GF recipes. But please remember that food manufacturers are constantly changing their products, so reading labels OFTEN is critical to confirm that a certain product is truly GF. On the other hand, more and more food and beverage manufacturers are labeling their products “gluten-free,” and this is super helpful to us. For example, every box of Chex® cereal is labeled “gluten-free” on the front (except for Wheat Chex®, of course). And on the back of some other foods (like Buddig® Premium Quality lunchmeats) it states “gluten-free” at the bottom of their ingredient list. However, just because a food doesn’t say “gluten-free” doesn’t mean that it isn’t! For example, bananas are GF, but it doesn’t say it on the label. At the time of this writing, Lays® Stax® Original potato chips are GF, but it doesn’t literally state “gluten-free” anywhere on the label. The words wheat, gluten, rye and barley do not appear anywhere in the ingredient list, so I can be fairly certain that it is a GF product (and I enjoy these often with no problems!).
Understand that for a food/beverage manufacturer to put “gluten-free” on their label, the company has to jump through some hoops like guaranteeing that the product is produced in a strictly GF environment. If a manufacturer isn’t willing to take this extra step, then you won’t find “gluten-free” on the label, but that doesn’t mean that it is off limits.
At the end of each ingredient list on a product, the company must state which allergens that product contains or may contain (by cross-contamination, for example). My can of Lays® Stax® Original potato chips says “contains a soy ingredient.” Other foods/beverages may say “contains wheat and soy” or “may contain wheat.” Personally, my sons and I have found that if a product says “may contain wheat,” we can usually tolerate it (manufacturers usually put this on the label not because it contains wheat but because they want to “cover” themselves). If it says “contains wheat,” we stay away from it.
In August of 2013, the FDA created a rule stating that when a manufacturer chooses to put “gluten-free” on food packaging, the item must comply with the new FDA definition of the term – less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Any food/beverage meeting this regulation may put the term “gluten-free” on their label, though they are not required to. For example, banana farmers will not be required to label their bananas GF even though they are. Food manufacturers claiming that their products are GF will have until August 2014 to comply with this regulation.
At this point, I will share a “gluten horror story” with you so that you can understand the importance of reading labels. This experience was with Land-O-Frost® lunchmeat. A couple years ago (so the label may have changed by now), I was making homemade pizzas for my family. We like to put cut up ham or other lunchmeat on our pizzas, so I checked the back of the Land-O-Frost® lunchmeat label, and seeing no indication of wheat, I cut it up and put it on the pizzas. The pizza tasted great, but about 2 hours later I was on the couch, doubled over in intense pain. The pizza was the ONLY thing I had eaten. I wracked my brain trying to think of which of the ingredients could have had hidden wheat: I made the crust from scratch, so that was OK; the jarred pizza sauce was fine as was the pepperoni (we had used both before); the hamburger was just plain burger, so that was fine; the cheese was fine; it HAD to be the lunchmeat. I re-read the label but found no clues. I went to their website to check a more detailed ingredient list, but could find nothing. So I called the company, and they had no clue what I was even talking about. Long story short, I will never eat this brand of lunchmeat again! I ONLY buy lunchmeat that says “gluten-free” on it because I don’t want to go through a painful experience like this again. WHY a manufacturer would put wheat/gluten in their lunchmeat, I will never understand.
The moral of this story: always read your labels, but understand that if it doesn’t specifically state “gluten-free” (like this lunchmeat), then you may be taking a risk by consuming it. And remember that food manufacturers modify the ingredients in their products, so always read the labels, even on foods/beverages that you use often.
Let’s Talk About PASTA!
I think pasta (along with bread) was one of the things I missed most when I first went gluten-free. There are many varieties of GF pastas available today: quinoa, white rice, brown rice, corn, or blends of these (like a corn-rice blend or rice-potato-soy blend). I have tried many of these, and by far, my favorite pasta is the rice pastas because the texture and taste are closest to regular pasta, in my opinion. My least favorite pasta is corn; to me, the texture is cardboard-like and the taste is bland. I encourage you to experiment with different types of pastas to find the one you like the best.
Cross-contamination can be a real issue for some people. For example, wheat and oats are often grown in fields near each other. If some of the wheat flies off the stalk and gets into the oats, then someone who has Celiac or is very sensitive to wheat/gluten can have terrible results if they eat those oats. Personally, my sons and I eat regular oats that are not technically GF, and we have no trouble. But if someone is super sensitive, then they may have to purchase GF oats to ensure no cross-contamination. Again, each person needs to be aware of how severe their condition is and then act accordingly.
Another area of possible cross-contamination is using the same condiments or utensils. For example, peanut butter, jelly, and butter containers can become “contaminated” with gluten if you insert a knife that has gluten bread or cracker crumbs on it. For me and my sons, getting a couple of crumbs of gluten is not a big deal, but if you are especially sensitive to gluten, you may need to have separate containers – one marked for gluten-eaters and one gluten-free. The same is true with toasters and other kitchen equipment where gluten and non-gluten food items use the same surface (cheese graters, cutting boards, etc.).
Over the past several years, more and more restaurants are stepping up and offering GF options for customers. They will often have a GF menu with choices in appetizers, main dishes and even desserts. Sometimes these items have to prepared in a special way to ensure it’s GF, but as one restaurant manager told me recently, they realize that this whole “gluten-free eating” thing isn’t just a fad – for many people it’s the way they have to eat, so restaurants need to accommodate! Can I just say “HOORAY” for the restaurants? And thank you!
Consider doing some research online before going out. Print out menus from your favorite restaurants and keep them in your purse/car. Better yet, use your smart phone and access the menus that way. Many restaurants offer a special gluten-free menu; just ask! (My favorite way to eat a burger: replace the 2 buns with 2 large pieces of lettuce – just ask the restaurant to make the change because you have an allergy.)
If you are at a restaurant that is not very conscientious about GF options, you can always opt for a salad with a non-breaded chicken breast on top. Be sure to double-check about the salad dressing and even ask to see the label. And make sure they hold the croutons too.
Another thing to consider if you are super-sensitive to wheat/gluten: if you want French fries, most likely they are cooked in the same vat as other breaded items, so cross-contamination is a probability. So be sure to carefully explain your situation and your concern when asking how a restaurant prepares their fries. Some restaurants are catching on and separating vats of oil so that this cross-contamination isn’t a problem.
Some of my favorite restaurants and why:
- Red Robin (they have GF hamburger buns!)
- Outback Steakhouse (they have a GF menu AND yummy GF desserts!)
- PF Changs (they have an entire GF menu from appetizers to desserts!)