Gluten-Free Diet? Once a Fad, Now Reality! Navigating a Still Often Gluten-y World

Let’s face it, the world is filled with yummy, gluten-y foods designed to make you want them…buns slathered in butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Or toast drenched in honey. Or crunchy-crusted bread, begging to be dipped in oil and vinegar.

Holy sugar cookies, Batwoman…why such a world?

With so much temptation everywhere, restaurants and special events can be major challenges to Living Gluten-Free. Fortunately, many restaurants now offer a much larger list of gluten-free diet options than they did even five years ago.

But you’ll want to know what you might walk into when you go out for a meal. When visiting an unknown restaurant, we suggest you take a moment to read the menu on-line before you go, and definitely read it before you sit down. Many restaurants show gluten-free dishes by putting the initials “GF” by that item, sometimes in a little round circle with a slash across the GF. Others may indicate gluten-free with an asterisk (*) or another symbol that leads you to a footnote somewhere else on the page, often at the bottom of the section or menu.

If you can’t find what you want on the menu, ask your host or a server to show you the gluten-free diet options. If you can’t find any that suit you…and they won’t work with you to serve what you want…consider politely saying “goodbye.”  Then, go find another place to eat, one with better selections. And don’t feel bad about leaving or giving them a few menu item suggestions before you go.

Catered weddings, birthdays, and other special events often offer limited menus and, even now, may have nothing except for a plain salad for the guest on a gluten-free diet. It’s best to ask the event organizers about your gluten-free choices before the event. If there are none…or none to your taste…consider going with your own food in a handy bag or cooler or canceling.

And what about drinks, both non-alcoholic and alcoholic? Gluten-free alcohol drinks include cider, most wines (those fermented in wooden barrels can contain small amounts of gluten (see https://www.glutenfreedietitian.com › gluten-content-of-wine-aged-in-oak-…), sherry, liquors like whiskey or vodka, port, and liqueurs (sweet drinks often served with dessert).

But beers, lagers, stouts, and ales usually contain gluten and should be avoided. Exceptions are beers and ales made from non-gluten grains like sorghum or rice. You can find these gluten-free beers at many supermarkets but, even now, not in so many bars and restaurants.

If you don’t see gluten-free beers advertised, it may be because some bars and restaurants have those gluten-free products set aside for guests, available on request rather than displayed on the menu. So, ask your server. Then, just to be safe once you are served, make sure your beverage shows gluten-free on its label.

In better news, most non-alcoholic drinks don’t contain gluten. Coffee, tea, most sodas, and so forth are naturally gluten-free. Some root beers might contain gluten but others not. So, no matter what beverage you choose, be sure to check the ingredients’ list on any drink that doesn’t seem obviously gluten-free. Ones to check, for example, include energy drinks or special sweetened or flavored coffees.

At the grocery store or supermarket, or when shopping for food online, always be ready to read product labels and do your best to decipher what you read there. Some of us older folks use our reading glasses, or even bring a pocket magnifier shaped like a credit card, to help us read the fine print! Or we look up the ingredients on the web using our phones. Rule of thumb: “When in doubt, do without.”

Food products usually advertise gluten-free on the label’s front in the form of a round symbol. There are several kinds of these symbols but a common one is shown to the right.

More importantly, you can also tell whether a product is gluten-free by carefully reading the ingredients list required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Each gluten-containing ingredient known to the producer will be listed and sometimes shown in bold print. Look for wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, and Kamut® or any other grain that was developed from these varieties. And at the end of the ingredient list, look for: “contains wheat.”

Of course, conventional bread, rolls, and pasta contain wheat…and so gluten…as do lots of pasta sauces, gravies, canned and boxed soups, and condiments like BBQ sauces or soy sauce.

Soy sauce and soy-sauce solids (the powder form) are fermented products made from soy, roasted wheat, brine, and Aspergillus mold. So, if you see “soy sauce” on an ingredients list, you can be pretty sure it’s gluten-y.

Thankfully, if you are a passionate lover of soy sauce, you can buy a similar product called “tamari” sauce that is not gluten-y. Tamari-sauce labels usually display the gluten-free symbol and words, giving you a quick way to choose as you are working your way down the grocery aisle.

A couple more cautions. Many baking mixes and flours advertised as “all-natural” or “whole-grain” are also gluten-y. Dietary supplements may contain gluten, too. So, read labeled ingredients carefully to avoid problems.

And one more caution. On any label where you see ingredients you can’t pronounce, don’t recognize, or are vague, be thoughtful before you buy. As it is with “soy sauce,” gluten or gluten-derivatives can be hidden in both familiar and chemical-sounding ingredients you don’t recognize.

And, unless food producers were informed, they may not be aware of sometimes-tiny quantities of gluten in ingredients that came from other companies. An ingredient called, “natural spices” for example, could contain small amounts of a gluten-y grain used as a filler or texturizer. When in doubt, do without!

You should also be concerned about cross-contamination at the production facility where the item gets made. Food labels usually display a footnote under the ingredients list, indicating whether the facility making your product also produced products with glutens and other allergens in them. At those facilities, gluten-containing dust or particles could have drifted onto your product or attached themselves as residue from previous runs on the same production line. If you are serving people with acute sensitivities, such as people with celiac or strongly-allergic friends and family, avoid products with potential cross-contamination problems.

There’s good news in the market, too. Lots of foods are naturally gluten-free. Fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as un-spiced and batter-free meats, poultry, and fish, and cheese and eggs are gluten-free. You can use these to make any meal. And most groceries and supermarkets offer plenty of these foods.

Some snacks like popcorn or 100% corn chips are naturally gluten-free. Many salsas, sauces, and dips are also naturally gluten-free. And you can still enjoy gluten-free pasta, bread, rolls, and crackers.  Just look for gluten-free replacements for your favorite bakery goods, which you will find in many groceries and supermarkets.

We have to say that locating some of these replacements can be a little confusing until you investigate your favorite supermarket or grocery. Sometimes you’ll find gluten-free products in a store’s special-dietary or health-food sections, or in a specific gluten-free area. Other stores will scatter gluten-free foods out on the same shelves as gluten-y products. And still other stores place several gluten-free items of a certain kind like bread or beers in units right next to the same kinds of gluten-y products.

If you don’t spot what you want right away, just ask the employees. Once you get used to your store’s way of dealing with gluten-free products, you should have little trouble finding what you want most of the time.

You should also know that Gluten-Free Living doesn’t mean that all grains are off-limits for home cooking and baking, either. “Replacement” grains include quinoa, teff, white and brown rice flours, amaranth, sorghum, polenta, buckwheat, cornmeal and cornstarch, potato flakes and starch, millet, and tapioca or cassava flours.

Some basic flour producers also offer gluten-free grains that you’d normally expect to be gluten-y, like oatmeal. Just check the labels to make sure the products you are selecting are actually gluten-free and produced in an uncontaminated facility.

And when it comes to dietary supplements like probiotics or multi-vitamins, you can usually find a gluten-free alternative to anything you take now.

Navigating a gluten-y world just takes a well-calibrated compass, one that points you towards islands of safe, tasty gluten-free products and away from the rocky shores of the ones that won’t work.

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