Gluten is a hot topic in the nutrition field these days – you’ll hear opinions ranging from “Everyone should go gluten free” to “Gluten-free is just the latest diet craze and is totally a passing fad.” Gluten-free products abound, and many food processors are jumping on the bandwagon. Amid all the hullabaloo regarding the labeling (or not) of GMO ingredients, companies are quietly (or with fanfare) slapping “gluten-free” labels on their products – even on those that have never contained gluten to begin with.
What is Gluten?
In layman’s terms, it is a protein found in wheat (and all its relatives), rye, and barley: it’s what makes the long, gluey strands when you mix wheat flour with water, what forms the webbing that traps air bubbles and gives artisanal breads their divine texture.
What’s a consumer to do? Is this the time to join the crowd and go gluten-free, or is it the time to stand fast and not abandon your favorite sourdough? As always, my advice is to educate yourself! Read both sides of the arguments, and pay attention to who sponsors the studies and articles you read – is there a hidden agenda in play?
Gluten-Free & Celiac Disease
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease in which the villi that line your small intestine are destroyed, causing malnutrition and other major repercussions), take your diagnosis seriously – gluten can indeed kill you. If you suspect you may suffer from celiac disease, do get tested – your primary care physician can order the test, and if s/he resists the idea, find a practitioner of functional medicine who is more open to the idea.
If you have been tested and the results are negative, you may still suffer from a sensitivity to gluten – don’t ignore that possibility. Common symptoms include “brain fog,” depression and mood swings, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, mouth ulcers and skin rashes, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue.
If you have any of these symptoms, try to eliminate gluten from your diet entirely for at least three weeks, and pay attention to how you feel. If you feel significantly better, then continue avoiding it. If you don’t notice a marked change in your symptoms, you may want to try eliminating another common “sensitivity foods” – major culprits tend to be corn, soy, dairy, and eggs – and see whether that relieves your symptoms.
If you can eat gluten without too much trouble, try giving it up except for on very special occasions. My answer to “Are you gluten-free?” is usually, “I avoid gluten…except when I don’t.” But then I really do try to reserve my splurges for homemade sourdough and situations where it would be rude to refuse something made just for me.
If you decide to go gluten-free, you will need to become a real label detective. Wheat (and its cousins, including but not limited to spelt, emmer, einkorn, farro), barley, and rye are automatically out. Oats, which are naturally gluten-free, are often contaminated with gluten during processing, so look for the gluten-free label. Gluten, like sugar, has many pseudonyms, including: Natural Flavor, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Emulsifiers, Lecithin, Caramel Color, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Hydrolyzed Plant Protein, and Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Malto-Dextrose, Malto-Dextrose, Maltodextrin, dextrin, …. It’s definitely not a lifestyle choice for the fainthearted but one that can bring markedly improved health.
The Alternatives to Gluten
There are several reasons I recommend that you don’t simply replace your bread and pasta products with their gluten-free counterparts:
The vast majority of gluten-free baked goods are in some ways nutritionally inferior to those containing gluten: unlike most wheat flour products available today, they are not enriched with vitamins and minerals. Many people on the Standard American Diet (yes, the acronym really is SAD) do get a decent amount of micronutrients from enriched flour products.
The flours and starches in gluten-free baked goods tend to be highly processed – white rice, tapioca starch, potato starch, cornstarch, etc. – and this removes even more nutrition from them, rendering them the equivalent of sugars in the way they are metabolized by the body.
Gluten-free foods tend to be expensive, whether you’re buying the finished product or the flour(s) to make them yourself.
In my opinion, gluten-free goods Just. Don’t. Taste. As. Good! Yes, they look like bread and pasta, but they lack the chewiness, the “toothsomeness” of their “gluten-ful” counterparts. Brown rice pasta can be a close second to semolina pasta, but it’s very difficult to cook (not yet, not yet, not yet…oops – overcooked!).
Because most larger baked goods rely on gluten for their structure, it’s virtually impossible to simply replace wheat flour with gluten-free alternatives when baking at home. Smaller baked goods (cookies, scones) can be made with gluten-free flours more successfully than breads, cakes and larger items. As for gluten-free bread and pasta – I’ve decided that I would rather save those calories for eating more vegetables!
Replacing vs Restoring
As a professionally trained cook and baker, I have tried valiantly to create gluten-free equivalents to numerous recipes – breads, cookies, cakes, etc. My conclusion (and this is completely my own opinion): while I’ve had some luck with nut-butter and oat-flour based cookie recipes (search for “cookies” on the Oh She Glows website) the best-tasting and best-textured gluten-free homemade goods are the ones that are gluten-free to begin with – meringues (and the macarons you can assemble from them), flourless cakes that rely on eggs for their structure, etc. There are plenty of gluten-free baking books out there, and many people living a gluten-free lifestyle staunchly defend their favorites – I personally have yet to find one that I would recommend.
I find that the most healthful approach to removing something from the diet is not replacing it but retraining the palate to not want it. Many people need the “crutch” of meat analogs (substitutes such as tofu hot dogs, soy-based sausages and deli meats, Tofurkey, Quorn) to become vegetarians, but due to the highly processed nature of these products, I always hope they will eventually give them up. I can understand the appeal of gluten-free bread, English Muffins, etc. But my strong advice is to eventually give these up in favor of whole foods. Gluten-free cheese bunnies (yes, even the organic ones) are on one level no more nutritious than their wheat-based goldfish cousins.
Ready to try this approach?
- Say you are accustomed to having an egg sandwich on an English Muffin for breakfast. Instead of reaching for the gluten-free English Muffin, think of what else could serve as the base, especially what else you might already have in the refrigerator – a grilled portobello mushroom? a hamburger or veggie burger or fish cake? a potato pancake or rice fritter? Heat one of those up, add your egg, and you have an open-face sandwich!
- Does lunch usually consist of some sort of wrap? Try a collard or lettuce leaf for a wrap. No – it’s not bread, but it’s handy and even better for you.
- Instead of serving bread with dinner, serve a cooked whole grain – brown rice, kasha, quinoa…. The leftovers can be used for porridge, salads, fritters, ….
Get creative, and allow yourself to experiment! Share your favorite gluten alternatives in the comments below!
Full disclosure: I am not gluten-free, but I have given it up for extended periods of time – the advice below is not meant to replace proper diagnosis and treatment by your primary care provider; rather, it is based on my observations and experiments with being gluten-free and helping others to do so.