Thursday, December 9, 2010

Going Gluten-Free

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.


CTJen said...

Good luck to you! I've been gluten free for about 18 months now. I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER. It isn't easy, but it is worth it. If you haven't seen it yet, check out Gluten Free Girl. She writes beautifully and has some truly wonderful recipes.

Notblueatall said...

Hooray for you both! I have a friend who is GF and because of it I carry a lot of GF stuff in my cafe (even waffles!). I get lots of questions and enjoy researching nutritional stuff. Then I heard about a book called the paleolithic diet. It's not a weight loss thing, but a pre-agriculture way of eating.
Please let me know how this change goes for you, I want to do it, but I just have no real motivation and assume it will be terribly difficult. I hope that I'm wrong. Glad to hear you know what was causing the health concern. Here's to feeling fantastic, soon!

alice said...

Good luck! Having been GF for about a year and a half, I commend you on diving in straightaway - the accidental glutenings suck, and while I hope you'll be able to do restaurants and the like again, I'm glad that he's already feeling better, since that's the important thing.

Having just dropped a bundle on one of the only two brands of vegan, GF shampoo and conditioner I can find, I wish you both well!

Heidi said...

Good luck! My mom had to avoid gluten for a while and it was HARD, especially considering that my sister has the "opposite" sensitivity and can't eat corn.

I hope this helps your husband immensely!

Teri said...

Do you know about Bob's Red Mill products? They have all the stuff you'll need for GF living. Their coconut flour biscuits are really good (recipe on the site.) This website is also great for GF:

My husband had to go GF so I know it's not easy. It's definitely easier now that there are so many great products and good recipes.

Fantine said...

My husband has ulcerative colitis, and to keep it under control requires several medications that cost about as much as our monthly rent. Being without insurance, he generally has to rely on free samples from the digestive health center, and an occasional round of prednisone for especially severe flares.

Sometimes I wonder if going gluten-free would help, but I don't know if either of us has the mental or physical energy to even try it. (I work full time and am in a home-study program, and he is disabled due to his digestive condition and therefore semi-retired, so he does most of the shopping and cooking.) Do you have any recommendations for books or websites that might help us research and decide if it's worth a shot?

chutti said...

Chiming in here with some cooking tips from the GF world.

Hubs had to go GF for several years, so became quite good at GF baking and I became good at label reading. The sneakiest contaminant by far was malt...oh, how I missed balsamic vinegar.

Best bet is to develop your own GF flour mix based on your taste and requirements. Most of the health food ones are very expensive and have some kind of bean in them, which is ICKY for anything Non-savory.

A mix of rice, tapioca, corn, sorghum, quinoa, potato, fava or garbanzo, whatever floats your boat. You can add Bob's coconut flour if you want to sweeten up your mix, potato to lighten. Warning: potato flour does not fry well.

You can often get rice, tapioca and other flours very cheap at large asian markets.

The best thing for pastry is Masa Harina, the mexican corn flour used for tamales. EXCELLENT for pie crust.

Without gluten, you may need to add xanthan gum and/or lecithin to recipes that require some stretching. Just experiment and you'll get a feel for it.

Best of luck to you!

JoGeek said...

Chutti: I was lucky enough to find Pompeian brand balsamic vinegar (after checking a LOT of bottles!) They claim they are "Naturally Gluten Free". Now if someone would raise me a soy-sauce substitute that doesn't taste like rotting fish.....

JoGeek said...

Fantine: I'm brand spanking new at this, but in the interest of making it as easy as possible I'm researching the heck out of it.

We're thinking about picking up this book on gluten-free shopping:
because they list a lot of mainstream products and post updates on their website when the products change. They're also local to me in Kalamazoo Michigan so I know the stores they're checking :-) They also deal with other sensitivities like Gluten/Casein/Soy combinations.

I'm also loving the philosophy of and the recipes on the Gluten Free Easily site because they stress that gluten free doesn't HAVE to be super-expensive.

I'm switching the whole household because it's much easier to not have to stop and think or read labels in mid-recipe. JD and I both know that whatever we reach for is safe for him. We're not sure how to deal with restaurants yet, but one step at a time.

KateJ said...

Yep, seconding the comment above about Asian grocery stores for cheap non-wheat flours. My dad and best friend both have coeliac disease, and I regularly cook a bread that's a mix of arrowroot, white and brown rice flours plus besan (chickpea flour) - the besan is really useful. Good luck!

mickey said...

Good luck in the transition! I hope everyone is feeling better very soon.

Regarding roux, I've had very good luck with thickening sauces using potato starch, so that might work for you.

And for wheat-free soy sauce, a friend with celiac's uses the VH brand, along with many of their other sauces.

Thanks for the info on things like chapstick! That's one I hadn't a clue about.

Beginnings of Wisdom Homeschool said...

Just discoverd your blog whist looking for online sewing help for a camisol.

I do not have to worry about gluten, I do have to read every label to find hidden sources of MSG. Just as you have found with gluten, MSG is hidden under a large variety of names.

We need TRUTH in Labeling!!