Welcome to Gluten-Free 101: A basic guideline for the gluten-free beginner. Whether you’ve been newly diagnosed with celiac disease, or you have a friend who avoids gluten, you’ll get the information you need here to get started.
I should preface this by saying I am not a doctor, a nutritionist, or any kind of health expert. This article is based on information I’ve collected after years of being gluten-free myself and I’ll be linking to plenty of resources written by people with much more knowledge than I have.
FAQ About Avoiding Gluten
What is gluten?
Gluten is a collection of proteins found in grains such as wheat and barley. It’s often referred to as the glue that helps hold bread products together, which is why you can take a powdery substance like wheat flour, combine it with water, and get a moldable stretchy ball of dough. The versatility of gluten means that you can manipulate it physically and chemically to create all sorts of shapes and textures; everything from croissants to crackers, to cinnamon rolls, to baguettes. It’s also used as a thickener for sauces, a base for meat-imitation products, and a stabilizing agent in processed foods.
What’s Celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder as well as the most well-known incarnation of gluten “allergies.” According to the Celiac Disease Foundation:
“When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.”
Celiac disease can result in a wide range of symptoms, primarily regarding digestion issues but also including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, anemia, and rashes.
What is Non-Celiac Gluten-Sensitivity?
Celiac disease is not the only thing that can cause you to avoid gluten. Phrases such as, “Non-Celiac Gluten-Sensitivity,” “Gluten Intolerance,” and “Gluten Allergy,” are used sometimes interchangeably with each other and with Celiac Disease. The difference between Non-Celiac Gluten-Sensitivity and Celiac Disease is still being studied, but so far the distinction seems to be that NCGS causes your body’s immune system to attack the gluten in your digestive system, whereas Celiac Disease causes your body’s immune system to attack its own tissue in response to consuming gluten, leading to damage in the small intestine.
Other reasons that people avoid gluten include health issues such as Dermatitis Herpetiformis, Gluten Ataxia, and a Wheat Allergy, or just due to personal preference.
Why would someone prefer to avoid eating gluten if they aren’t allergic?
An immediate change that occurs when you stop eating gluten, regardless of your reason, is that you are forced to cook the majority of your food. Most processed food contains gluten and currently, the pre-made gluten-free meals available on the market are very expensive, not that great, and rarely nutritious. Switching to meals that are primarily composed of fresh food can make for a healthier lifestyle without any gluten sensitivity, and some people find they just feel better when they avoid eating gluten.
Where Do I Start?
You or one of your loved ones has figured out that they can’t eat gluten. Where do you go from here? How do you take on the monumental task of cutting gluten out of your diet?
The first question that you need answered is, How sensitive are you?
Because there’s such a wide range of gluten-sensitivities and reactions, every person is going to have a different limit on how much gluten is too much. For many people with Celiac, having even a trace of flour will make them sick or even send them to the hospital. Some people can handle eating a slice of pizza for their birthday, with the knowledge that they will feel like crap the next day.
If this is a question you are answering for yourself, it will likely take some experimenting to find out where your boundaries are and how frequently you can take risks without serious consequences. If you are asking this question of a friend who you want to cook for, chances are they already know their limitations and can give you the specifics of their needs.
What Foods Do I Have to Avoid?
When you stop eating gluten, you have to become a dedicated ingredient-reader. For me, ingredients fall into one of two categories: Definitely Avoid and It Depends.
Definitely Avoid refers to foods that have a substantial amount of gluten in them, one of their clearly listed ingredients is wheat, there’s no doubt that you’ll get sick if you eat it, etc.
It Depends ingredients are a bit more complicated. There are a lot of code names for gluten on food packages, and sometimes the source of the ingredient determines whether it’s safe for you to eat it or not. Alternatively, these ingredients may be processed enough or be used in tiny enough quantities that you won’t have a reaction.
Common Grains: Wheat, Barley, Malt, Spelt, Rye and any derivatives (ie: cake flour, malt powder, rye berries, etc.)
Less Common Grains: Kamut, Triticale, Durum, Emmer, Semolina, Spelt, Farina, Farro, Graham
Code Names for Gluten: Food starch, modified food starch.
It Depends (And Why)
Most of the following ingredients are only a problem some of the time, and in addition, they are only typically a problem for those highly sensitive to gluten. If you have just a general intolerance and can get away with a few bites of a cookie here and there, this list is likely not necessary for you to follow. These guidelines were also formulated with the United States in mind, and many of these ingredients are processed differently depending on the country they come from.
Oats (unless specified as gluten-free): Oats, by nature are gluten-free. But they are almost always raised with wheat, are cross-pollinated with wheat, and they are processed in the same mills, using the same equipment. Only oats grown and processed separately are considered gluten-free. If it doesn’t say how it was processed, assume it has been contaminated with gluten.
Buckwheat: Despite the name, Buckwheat does not actually contain wheat! But don’t get too excited. If you see something like “buckwheat pancakes,” on the menu, it’s very likely that wheat flour is included in the ingredients as well. Just like oats, buckwheat contains no gluten itself and is usually processed with wheat and subject to contamination.
Any unidentified starch: I’ve adopted this personal rule: If the ingredient list contains the word, “starch,” and doesn’t specify what kind of starch it is, or what it is made of, I assume it’s made of gluten until I can check with the manufacturer and verify otherwise.
Manufactured/Processed in a facility with wheat: If you’re really sensitive to gluten, don’t forget to check that pesky allergen label down at the bottom of the list of ingredients. Even if gluten isn’t an actual ingredient, lots of food is made using the same equipment as food that has gluten in it, which can be enough to contaminate it. Still, this is the “ingredient” that I’m most likely to cheat on. In many cases, the contamination is so minor, that there isn’t enough glutenin your serving of food to cause a reaction. I will occasionally risk eating something manufactured in a facility with wheat if I’ve been feeling healthy, although I make sure to never do so multiple days in a row.
Maltodextrin, Artificial flavoring, and caramel color: All three of these ingredients are on available lists of hidden sources of gluten, however, there is also research to indicate that they are so thoroughly processed, that there is essentially no gluten left by the time they make it into your food. Different individual people report different reactions to these ingredients, and their reports may or may not be accurate. I seem to still react to maltodextrin, but not the other two. Maybe it’s all in my head, who knows? You have to find what works for you.
Some foods you might not expect to have gluten in them but do
Soy sauce: Most standard soy sauce contains wheat, but tamari or wheat-free soy sauce is fairly easy to find.
Baking sprays: Bakers often sprinkle their pans with flour and some baking sprays help you skip this step by adding flour to their spray.
Macaroons, potato bread or cornbread: Three foods that seem like they would be primarily made of coconut, potatoes, and corn respectively, but almost always use flour to give them structure and body. Very few ingredients can give you that fluffy yet stable texture that gluten does with ease, so always double check if you see a non-gluten ingredient apparently performing like gluten.
Rice krispies: Yes really, argh! Standard rice krispies are made with malt flavoring. However, gluten-free rice crispies do exist, you just have to confirm you have the right kind.
Licorice: Who knew the primary ingredient in this candy is wheat flour?
Fake crab, meatballs, canned soup, premade salad dressing: all frequently or always contain gluten.
12 Rules I Follow
If you or your loved one has a pretty high sensitivity to gluten or has severe reactions to it, then taking precautions to avoid accidents and contamination, while stressful, really are worth it. Here are the rules that I follow to minimize gluten exposure.
1. ANYTHING can have gluten in it. Other than fresh fruits or vegetables, absolutely any food can be contaminated with gluten.
2. Always check the ingredients of any new product, any product with new packaging, or any new quantity of a product that you use. It’s even useful to make it a habit of occasionally checking products you’ve been using for years, just in case. Products that used to be gluten-free can change their ingredients or switch facilities with no notice, making them no longer safe to eat.
3. Read the entire ingredient label. Check for allergy warnings at the bottom.
4. If you’re really really sensitive, don’t look at the “Gluten-free!” label on the front and assume it’s safe for you to eat. Legally, any product labeled “Gluten-free” contains no more than 20 ppm gluten, and any product with a “Certified Gluten-Free” label contains no more than 5 ppm. These are really really tiny amounts, but they are still enough to cause reactions in some people.
5. If there’s any doubt or question about an ingredient (ie: “modified food starch (corn)” ), don’t use it. Check with the manufacturer and get a definite answer or check online on gluten-free forums to find out if other folks with celiacs have had reactions to the product.
6. Check for other food allergies. If you’ve been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, look into further allergy testing if possible. If you have a friend with Celiac Disease, before making food for them, check to find out if they have any other food sensitivities. Celiac Disease wrecks havoc on your intestines, and for many people, by the time they are diagnosed, they have lost the ability to digest other foods such as dairy or soy as well.
7. Practice good kitchen safety to prevent cross-contamination. There are many ways you can make your kitchen more gluten-free friendly when you’re sharing a kitchen with gluten-eaters, including having a designated gluten-free toaster, wiping down surfaces to keep them free of crumbs, and avoiding kitchen tools that are made of porous materials such as wood.
8. Do your research before eating out at a restaurant. The vast majority of restaurants use gluten in most of their food, and while it’s becoming more common to see that little GF icon next to menu items, many restaurants don’t automatically use cross-contamination practices. This article includes some guidelines about how to increase your likelihood of getting a meal that’s safe when you go out to eat.
9. Choose which deli you purchase meat at carefully. While meat itself doesn’t have gluten in it, many delis provide pre-made meatballs or marinated kabobs, which usually contain gluten, and contamination is possible. Ask around until you find a deli that you trust.
10. Avoid bulk departments. When flour is poured from a bag into a bin, it becomes airborne and gets on everything. Most gluten-free foods in bulk departments have contamination problems. If you live in a particularly health-conscious city, you may be able to find a grocery store that tries to avoid cross-contamination in their bulk department, but there’s no guarantee that they do. I do however find that bulk liquids like olive oil and maple syrup are usually safe.
11. Check your medications, supplements, makeup, hair products, and skincare products for gluten. Gluten is a cheap filler, so companies like to use it in everything. Not everyone is sensitive to skin contact with gluten, but wheatgerm is a very common ingredient in body products, so make sure to either replace these products or track your reactions to them carefully.
12. Hope for the best. You can’t be on top of everything. You can only do what you can. Sometimes it’s more important to not stress about potential contamination and enjoy yourself than to prevent symptoms. You have to learn what your own limitations are.
What Am I Still Allowed to Eat?
At this point, you may feel like tearing your hair out and yelling, geez, is there anything I can eat? The answer is, yes! There are lots of things! Assuming you have no further food allergies or intolerances, here is a very nonexhaustive list of big food groups you can still enjoy:
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Meat, Poultry, and Fish
- Dairy products, eggs, and tofu
- Rice, Potatoes, and Corn
- Nuts, seeds, legumes
- Fermented foods (pickles, olives, sauerkraut)
- Sugar and chocolate
- Oils and spices
And while the available options for gluten-free bread products are still limited and expensive, there is some stuff out there to help you meet those cravings, and certain products such as gluten-free pasta or bread crumbs are becoming much easier to find.
So go get cooking! This website has lots of ideas for recipes you can try as well as recipes for special gluten-free baked goods that taste so good you won’t even notice what you’re missing.