It’s a question we get asked often. I’m going gluten-free. So now what?
Going into the gluten-free zone is not without its challenges. At the beginning it feels a little like trying to learn calculus, rocket science or how to guess your mother-in-law’s mood. The first weeks are the hardest because it takes a while to become familiar with the unusual suspects that are actually gluten, but hidden in language that makes it clear as the weather report that says sunshine while you’re standing in a monsoon.
The Distilled Version: GF 411
How to navigate gluten-free? After more than a dozen years of being gluten-free we would distill it down to these practices:
- always read labels like crazy
- don’t be shy about Googling a company’s FAQ or Allergen pages on their websites
- When in doubt – call the company and become familiar with this phrase: “may I please speak to someone who knows this information”
- be polite when venturing out to eat because no one is actually responsible for what you eat except you and realize that eating gluten-free in the wild blue yonder is often a crap shoot
- practice will make the process familiar
New to gluten-free?
Begin by reading reliable and accurate sources for information. There are websites and blogs galore, but not all of them offer advice or information that is up-to-date or reliable. Here are few places to begin that will offer solid information and links. You will find safe food lists, how to identify sources of gluten, support group links, research information, safe candy lists, and more:
- Center for Celiac Research and Treatment
- University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
- Celiac Disease Foundation
- Celiac Disease and Gluten Free Diet Information since 1995
- National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
- American Celiac Disease Alliance
- Living Without Magazine
- Simply Gluten Free Magazine
Gluten Free Good Stuff
Getting started on a gluten-free diet can be just a little bit this side of a big fat headache. To help you navigate through the early part of adjusting to a gluten-free world, I’m including a little bit of advice and a list of some of our favorite things. We do not have sponsors, nor do we endorse any products for profit or freebies. We buy all these products just like anyone else would- because we like them. If it isn’t listed here, we probably don’t use it or find that it meets our very picky standards.
- Authentic Foods: flours (see our About Flours tab at the top of the page if you are interested in more flour information and what we use for baking)
- Gluten Free Pantry/Glutino baking mixes
- Betty Crocker Gluten Free Baking mixes
- Bob’s Red Mill: Gluten Free Oats
- Nuts.com: any of their gluten free products
- Bakery on Main: Gluten Free Granola
- Glutenfreeda: gluten-free instant oatmeal
- Attune Foods: various GF cereals
- Udi’s: bread or burger/hot dog buns
- Amy’s: any product that is labeled GF
- Let’s Do Coconut: flake or shredded unsweetened coconut
- Edward & Sons: gluten-free ice cream cones
When we first began eating gluten-free and making over our kitchen to gluten-free, we were what I might call a little bit obsessed. We talked about it to anyone who would stand still for five minutes. After a few months we realized that the Barista could care less and our friend’s eyes were glazing over when we began the same old song. Fortunately there are celiac awareness groups everywhere who will listen, and be a sounding board, and you can join one. Use the links from the organizations listed above to find one in your area. No one need be alone doing this gluten-free thing. You’ll find plenty of company and advice for whatever questions you might have.
Gluten by any other name
Now to the fun part. For comprehensive lists of all things gluten, use those same website links listed above. Gluten is of course, anything wheat and it’s relatives, barley and rye – and includes all those ancient grains that are related to wheat like spelt. But there is a language that the food manufacturing industry uses that calls gluten by several other names. Similar to how George Forman named all of his kids, George. The same, only different. That’s gluten. Generally, it goes like this:
- food starch
- modified food starch
- barley malt
- caramel coloring
- natural flavorings
- wheat anything
And just to make it more confusing – and fun – some products are gluten-free in one size, but not gluten-free in another. Candy comes to mind. Also, some candy is gluten-free, say in the United States, but the same candy could contain gluten in another country. Read labels – carefully. And when in doubt, call the company.
To make it even more fun, some companies have a top-dog secret code for whether their stuff is gluten-free safe. Kraft comes to mind. They will list any allergens on their label if there are any. For example – Jell-O puddings contain food starch, but since the label does not say the product contains wheat, it is gluten-free safe. However, they don’t come out and say that. You have to either have someone who did the research tell you or call them. See? Like Blue’s Clues.
Hershey is the same. They will tell you on the label and the clue is in the listing for any allergen information.
Biggest Bad Stuff?
Just for the fun of it, there is hidden gluten in foods that one normally expects to be gluten-free. Or food labeled gluten-free but it clearly is not. Since the FDA has not yet approved the gluten-free labeling standards, anyone can still slap a label on a product and call it gluten-free. Look for certified gluten-free labels and read the labels carefully.
Cross contamination is probably the biggest obstacle to eating gluten-free. Setting up your kitchen to be gluten-free is the easiest way to avoid any contamination issue at home. Setting up a gluten-free kitchen isn’t all that hard but it will take some time. You’ll want, at minimum, to do these things:
- replace wooden boards and utensils because the cracks contain gluten
- time for a new toaster
- wipe out the cupboards after getting rid of gluten containing ingredients
- give the kitchen a spring cleaning
When you go out to eat, cross contamination is a huge problem. However, please remember, the restaurant or host is not responsible for feeding you safely. You are. Don’t make it about them because then it just becomes aggravating for everyone. If a restaurant has a gluten-free menu don’t assume that means the food is actually gluten-free. The best thing to do is to call ahead and talk with them or even the chef – surprisingly, many chefs will want to talk with you – and talk about what you need and see if they can accommodate the request. Sometimes it works out just great and other times it is a cluster&*^%.
There are clues though. If a restaurant doesn’t know if they have a gluten-free menu or isn’t sure of their gluten-free cross contamination avoidance process, rest assured, they will not be accommodating your dietary needs. Don’t force it. Just say that you are sorry they won’t be able to serve you and move on. If you ask about gluten-free and they seem right on top of it, you have a good chance of eating there successfully. Be sure to thank everyone who helped make that happen.
More and more, we don’t bother to go out. If we do, it is to places that we have been before and established either a relationship with the manager or chef, or know what’s on the menu that we can eat and not have any issues. We used to tell them we were gluten-free and blahdy blah blah blah, but these days we barely mention it. We’ve learned what to eat and what to not eat. You will, too – in time.
Eating out options?
There are some great phone or iPad apps and websites that are of assistance these days for spreading the eating-out word. But remember – it’s a cautionary tale – for some chain restaurants that offer gluten-free – their ability to do that is not necessarily consistent. Always inquire or look for local reviews. Here are a few of my favorite information sources:
- Find Me Gluten-Free is an app and is growing like crazy
- Gluten Free Guidebook, run by author, Hilary Davidson on Facebook is full of helpful tips from people all over the world
- Eating Out, some information and a restaurant list from Living Without
Your kitchen is now gluten-free-ish. You’ve been able to figure out the basics of shopping (the local grocery and online) and yet it doesn’t quite feel like you’ve hit it all yet. Guess what? If you have pets, you haven’t quite finished. Your pet’s food might be a source of cross contamination – and that is especially true if that happy dog licks you after having their dinner. Yep. Really.
Fortunately there are plenty of good grain-free or gluten-free pet foods available these days. We used to cook for Lulu and Phoebe and sometimes still do, but we have some reliable foods for them that actually are quite good for them. Pets don’t need gluten and some are better off without them. If your pet suffers from skin or other ailments, going GF or grain-free might help. Please look in our index:subject for Lulu and Phoebe for easy gluten-free dog treat recipes. For their daily food, we use these brands but there are also plenty of other quality brands to pick from:
Cookbooks or Gluten Free Blogs?
Of course our blog is full of GF baking recipes. And our book, coming September 2013, Nosh on This from The Experiment is full of gluten-free baking recipes. But there are some other blogs and books that will be a big help. I like books that are easy to use, proven to work, and full of ingredients you can find rather easily. There are many, many gluten-free blog and books out there these days. You have tons to pick from. But here are some we would recommend:
- Gluten Free on a Shoestring by Nicole Hunn
- Gluten Free Baking for the Holidays by Jeanne Sauvage
- Fast & Simple Gluten Free by Gretchen Brown
- The Gluten Free Asian Kitchen by Laura Russell
- Gluten Free Makeovers by Beth Hillson
- How to Cook Gluten Free by Elizabeth Barbone