Being gluten free is a like being a full time student while having a full time job. It requires understanding what is and where it can be found which means you must learn about the basics of cooking, how to read labels, and common restaurant preparation practices. In terms of quantity of information, it is a lot. Not to mention, the labels on today’s foods are so complicated you feel like you need a BA in chemistry to decipher their code, but we Celiacs manage. Once you get down the basics of being gluten free the real work starts. Every meal tests your knowledge and the consequence of ill-preparation or even a simple mistake is much graver than a bad grade. The good news is that it does become easier with time. That being said, even the most seasoned Celiacs run into gluten now and then.
What are those common pitfalls that get even the most diligent gluten free devotees? Here are 5 things that tend to sneak under the GF radar:
1. Pet Food – who would have though that man’s best friend could be your biggest gluten free enemy? If you aren’t seeking out gluten free food for your pet I suggest you start right away. Cats and dogs (at least mine and I’m sure there must be others) tend to wolf down their food. Seriously, when little Cannoli eats it is like something out of a cartoon with food flying in all directions.
In college my roommate had a Chihuahua who, like most small dogs and cats, would pick up a mouthful of food from their bowl and eat in all the way across the room on the floor. If your pet food is full of gluten (like most are) you may be putting yourself at serious risk for cross-contamination in your house.
If you think labeling laws are lackluster in the human world, wait until you start looking for gluten free pet food. “Grain free” does NOT usually mean gluten free in the pet world. In fact, “grain free” varieties tend to have both oatmeal and barley in their recipes. You want to find brands that say “gluten free” or “no glutens” on them or you can take the time to read the labels on the “grain free” foods because some are gluten free.
Treats should also be gluten free because you typically handle them with your bare hands. Blue has a bunch of gluten free treats that you can use to train puppies and to simply treat your pet.
Here are some very affordable brands that have gluten free food for both cats and dogs. I have used both Instinct and Blue for my pets with great results.
2. Wine – Many people believe that all wine is gluten free. While most wines are gluten free there are some exceptions that you should be aware of and on the lookout for. For example, the process of fining the wine can result in gluten contamination if the company uses wheat protein as their fining agent. Fining is a process where the wine is stabilized and clarified by adding a protein (usually a clay called bentonite or animal protein). The proteins drift through the wine picking up solids and then sink to the bottom of the barrel leaving the wine at the top clear and stable.
Wines that don’t undergo fining usually need to be decanted before drinking. Furthermore, the proteins attract and eventually precipitate out phenols which contribute to the bitter taste of the wine. Fining can be used to augment the taste or astringency of the wine.
What is the verdict? Your wine is most likely safe, so drink up! According to Geraldine Newcomen of the Food Standards Agency in the UK, any product containing an allergen must be properly labelled eg if a wine fining process contaminates the wine with wheat it must be labeled on the bottle as “containing wheat.” This is not true, or at least not enforced, in the US but most wines are naturally gluten free. Most wine companies use bentonite clay as their fining agent due the the vegan movement encouraging them to stay away from animal proteins and the food allergy movement pushing them away from using gluten. When you drink wine, be conscientious. Check for any allergy labels on the bottle, avoid wines from Australia or New Zealand which have a higher likelihood of using wheat products during the wine making process.
3. French Fries – My go-to food at restaurants when I first got my CD diagnosis was French Fries. It wasn’t until a year into my diagnosis that I realized that French Fries are much more enemy than friend. Though they are made of potato there are so many ways to contaminate French Fries. First and foremost, they are most likely fried in contaminated oil. If the oil in the deep fryer is used to fry onion rings, fried chicken, wontons and the like than all foods fried in that oil are essentially infused with gluten and should be avoided. Additionally, a lot of French Fries are dredged in flour to make them crisper when fried. What is worse, a lot of restaurants buy their French Fries frozen and so the waitstaff and potentially the kitchen staff wouldn’t even know that they have been dunked in flour. Along the lines of restaurants buying frozen French Fries, sometimes the staff does not pay attention to what type of fries they buy. For example, I went to a place in Berkeley, California that was selling beer-battered French Fries but didn’t even know it. I discovered this when I asked to see the packaging.
The moral of the story is stay away from French Fries unless you are at a restaurant that you know really, really well or has been trained in cross-contamination and gluten free awareness.
Are there some safe fries out there? Yes! Five Guys and In N Out both have GF fries and oil that is exclusively used for their fries. Stay away from almost all other fast food French Fries and be sure to inquire at sit-down restaurants before ordering their fries.
4. Veggie Burgers – I don’t fully understand why but many, many, many people assume that if something is vegetarian or vegan then it is probably gluten free too. This is absolutely not the case. Although vegans and gluten free people both have highly restricted diets, read labels and ask questions at restaurant it does not mean that our needs are the same. Sometimes, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it simply isn’t a duck. You know? I have been served veggie patties as the “gluten free option” a number of times, all of which resulted in me being glutened. I learned my lesson and now avoid veggie burgers unless I can personally read the label or a chef comes out and tells me how he or she made the burger.
One time I was at a catered work event and the caterer said the veggie burger was the GF option. I asked the guy to double check the packaging and I watched as he picked up the box and read. He came back to report that the patty was gluten free. Literally form 10 feet away and looking over his shoulder I could see a big sticker on the box that said “MADE FROM WHOLE WHEAT!” Sometimes people can’t get vegans and gluten free people separated in their brains. This is something that gluten free people need to know and counter-act.
Some veggie burgers, like Sunshine burgers, are gluten free. If you are trying to be GF and vegetarian or vegan than be sure to find some reliable brands so you don’t go hungry! I am actually going vegan until Thanksgiving and I look forward to the challenge. I’ll be sure to post about my experience once it has been longer than a two-day commitment (I started yesterday).
5. Preschool or Kindergarten – This may not apply to most of my readers; however, many of you either have or at least know a Celiac kid. Playdough is any Celiac kids worst enemy. Children play with it all day and then run around touching things with their contaminated, yet adorable, little hands. If you have a Celiac kid and need to send him or her to preschool or Kindergarten I suggest talking to the head teacher about playdough in the classroom.
Ironically, I discovered how troubling play-dough (brand: Play-Doh) can be through my work. At a big work conference all of our tables had play-dough at them for people to fiddle with during the long 6 hour lectures. Unfortunately, we also ate lunch at these tables. People would rub the play-dough on the table to flatten it out, little bits would stick to the table and dry and my colleagues’ hands were coated with the shiny oil from the play dough, making me feel like I could see the gluten all over them. As a grown up, I wasn’t too concerned. I made sure my hands and food didn’t touch the table. Kids aren’t this observant. They touch everything around them and are very prone to sticking their hands in their mouths. The risk of contamination is pretty high!
Solutions? Talk to the teacher about having play-dough removed from the classroom. I am a teacher and I know I would be receptive to a suggestion like this from a parent. If for some reason they believe that play-dough is a quintessential component for their pre-K curriculum than advise they buy a GF brand. If they refuse you may want to consider either going to an administrator at the school or buying the GF play-dough yourself and coercively donate it to the school. If there is one thing I know about parents of Celiac kids, they are persistent and effective advocates for their children.
Alright, I recognize that on top of everything you know about being gluten free, adding even five more things can be pretty frustrating and disheartening. Let’s end on a positive note. We talked about five surprising things you can’t have but what are some surprising things that you can have???
1. Macaroons and Macarons – Most Macaroons and Macarons are naturally gluten free! Macaroons are the American cookie with coconut in them used by many during Passover. Macarons are typically those colorful French cookies you see in pastry shops. They are also usually gluten free because they are traditionally made with almond flour.
There are always exceptions so always read labels and ask questions but for the most part, you are good to go. Jewish Macarons are used as a dessert on Passover. They are Kosher and gluten free. Additionally, a lot of French Macarons are made with almond flour like this recipe for chocolate Macarons.
2. Lea and Perrins – We normally avoid Worcester Sauce because it used to always have gluten in it. This also meant we had to avoid Caesar salads and many steak sauces and marinades. Today, Lea and Perrins, probably the biggest Worcester company, has changed their recipe to be gluten free. I still would be cautious about ordering a Caesar salad or ordering something with Worcester without seeing the bottle and making sure it is Lea and Perrins but you can definitely use it at home when you are cooking. In the next few years I think it will be safe to eat Caesar dressing without too much inquiry. Now that Lea and Perrins have set the bar, I expect other companies to follow suit. Until that day, always be cautious but you can start re-including Lea and Perrins into your recipes.
3. Dorritos – These are now gluten free! The original flavor of Dorritos has changed its recipe, which used to include wheat flour, to a recipe that uses corn instead. As someone in the field of Public Health I can’t really condone eating Dorritos but this will make Superbowl parties and the like much easier considering how popular the Nacho Cheese flavor is! Yum!
4. Pao de Queijo aka Brazilian Cheese Bread – Ever been to Fogo De Chao? This is a very popular Brazilian restaurant that, like most Brazilian restaurants, serves Pao. This is the most amazing cheese bread on the planet! Seriously, it tastes like a Cheez-It but has the texture of fresh baked, perfectly gooey bread. It is naturally gluten free. If you don’t have a Brazilian restaurant in your area than you should order Brazi Bites online (or look for them at your local GF store).
5. Poppadoms aka Indian Lentil Bread – Though the texture resembles that of a chip more than bread, Poppadoms are delicious and available at most Indian restaurants. You should always check to make sure they do not have flour in them because some restaurants do not follow an authentic Poppadom recipe. They have a yummy nutty flavor and are a great GF substitute for Naan. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t taste like Naan, but it is something you can munch on at the table and use to scoop up curry in the bottom of your bowl during dinner.
I hope reading about the five foods that many unsuspecting Celiacs fall victim to will help you avoid gluten contamination this fall and that they five happy gluten free surprises made your day! Go indulge in some Macarons or some cheesy Dorritos. Being gluten free is very challenging. You deserve to indulge every now and then. Enjoy!