After a long year of working with my partner's serious illness, we think we've finally found the reason for it and our household is officially going gluten free.
Technically only he needs to eat gluten-free, but the risk of cross contamination, accidents, and the hassles of split meals make it logical for me to simply join him on the diet and just keep everything containing gluten out of the house altogether. My having the occasional gluteny treat is not worth the chance of making him sick again.
So we scoured every label for the obvious (wheat, barely, rye) and the less obvious (caramel color, malt, modified food starch, "natural flavor" and a hundred others). Everything unopened we suspected of containing gluten went to the Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes food bank yesterday. 31 pounds and the warm fuzzy feeling of helping those who really need it. Anything they wouldn't accept (frozen, refrigerated, partials, etc.) goes into a friend's freezer who has a big family to feed.
The cupboard isn't as bare as I'd feared, since some brands (like Wal-mart) is adapting to the changing market by labeling products when they're gluten-free. Most of the time the issue isn't that the product actually contains wheat gluten, but that it was manufactured in a facility that handles gluten-containing products and the flour dust, crumbs, handlers, etc. could cause cross-contamination. I was particularly surprised to see that a lot of plain frozen vegetables have "may contain" warnings on them that make them unsafe; perhaps because the same facility is used to process frozen breaded items. It isn't worth the risk at this point, so out the door it goes.
Some of the gluten dangers are surprising. Did you know that Crest is willing to claim their toothpaste is gluten free, but Colgate isn't? Did you know that some artificial colors are made from wheat, and that you have to write each manufacturer with the batch number to find out if you can use, say, frosting coloring or vanilla extract? Did you know that most commercial vitamin E is made from wheat germ, and therefore vitamins, multivitamins, and even chapstick can make a gluten sensitive person sick?
At this point we're going crazy-paranoid about every little thing, in hopes of getting him well as fast as possible. In a year or so he may decide to test his tolerance for, say, chapstick, but in the meantime he's not eating in restaurants, we're bringing our own food to potlucks and family gatherings, and creating a gluten-clean house by even scrubbing down all the food shelves and replacing the shelf paper in case there's residual flour dust.
After three days he's already feeling better, but we're both still surprised every time he eats something and doesn't get sick.
The biggest concern for us was cost, as national figures suggest that a gluten-free diet costs 200%-300% more than the average American diet. Yesterday we went to one of the two health-food stores in town and extensively priced everything, noting brand, size and cost in a notebook. I'm sure they thought we were either crazy, or spies from a competing shop, because very puzzled clerks kept asking if they could help us :-) Once I have it all plugged into a spreadsheet we can do a comparison check at the other health food store in town, and then see what on the list is also available at local grocery chains.
We discovered that the high-cost estimates of eating gluten-free is assuming a few things. It's assuming that people buy the outrageously priced, Styrofoam textured commercial GF foods, like cookies, crackers, bread, candy, baking mixes and microwavable meals. It's six dollars for a pack of GF cookies comparable to the package of vanilla sandwich cookies you can buy at any dollar store.
For someone who is tolerant of glutens, it's generally cheaper (in a purely financial sense) to buy pre-packaged and prepared foods. Before going GF I could get a package of cookies, crackers, or cereal cheaper than the ingredients to make them myself. The inverse is true when you're discussing a gluten-free diet. Even using gluten-free flour substitutes, I can make GF cookies MUCH more cheaply than I can buy them, and they'll actually taste like cookies. I can make my own flour mixes much more cheaply than buying commercial mixes. I can make a fresh meal of fresh veggies and meat much more cheaply than buying commercial GF microwave dinners.
The ideal and least expensive route to Gluten-free is to rely on fresh vegetables (blanch and freeze them yourself with seasonings already included for quick side dishes) meats, whole gluten-free grains and legumes, and rice. No one actually needs the pre-packaged stuff that makes the GF diet so expensive.
I, however, am a bread fiend. Like many Europeans, I think a really complete, excellent meal comes with fresh bread of some kind or another. So I'm willing to sacrifice some extra money (and thankful I have it) to buy a few gluten-free flour alternatives to mix myself and use in baking. In some ways that's a benefit; how can a pie crust made with almond flour instead of wheat be anything but yummier? :-)
I can at least count us extremely lucky that I love to experiment in the kitchen and am a fairly good cook and baker. It will be easier for me to transition to gluten-free than it would for a lot of people, because I can think around recipes and know how to substitute items to achieve good flavor. I've already accumulated a stack of recipes to try, and am planning to search diligently to find a substitute flour for the roux in our family's traditional Christmas gumbo. I hear amaranth works well.
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