As part of Celiac Awareness Month, Jersey Bites contributor Melissa Yurasits offers her take on living a gluten-free lifestyle. Be on the lookout for more related coverage on JerseyBites.com throughout the month.
When my doctor suggested three years ago that I eliminate gluten from my diet, I first thought she was crazy, but quickly learned it was the root of my digestive problems and it the smartest suggestion she could have given me (although I tested negative for Celiac disease, I do have an intolerance to gluten).
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten that affects 1 in 33 Americans, although 83% remain unaware or misdiagnosed (IBS is a common misdiagnosis). Symptoms can vary greatly per person, but can include a plethora of digestive issues, bloating, gas, headaches and fatigue. There is also a smaller population of Americans (approximately 6%, including myself), who do not have Celiac but still have a sensitivity to gluten, without the intestinal damage, according to recent research (celiaccentral.org). The only cure for both situations is to practice a gluten free lifestyle and diet. Additionally, people with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease (http://celiac.org/celiac-disease/what-is-celiac-disease/).
The basics of the gluten-free diet include avoiding anything with wheat, rye or barley. In other words, gluten-filled breads, pastas, cakes, cookies, anything with flour, and even beer are now your mortal enemies. The good news is that even within my short three years of going gluten free, I have seen a huge insurgence of GF items from all of the above categories, and all hope is not lost! In fact, this week I indulged in red velvet GF cupcake from Sprinkles bakery in Manhattan that was arguably the BEST cupcake I’ve ever had. Gluten-filled or not!
For anyone who is going gluten free or has been recently diagnosed with celiac, below are some tips and brands that helped me make the transition. Please note that these are only my personal recommendations—I am not a doctor and you should still always read your food labels to be sure no gluten is hidden in a lengthy ingredient list.
Pick corn or quinoa-based gluten-free pastas. Rice pastas can lose their shape and become limp, and are generally mushier (in my findings). I love corn penne – it has the firm bite and holds in with sauces. Once you’re used to the slightly different flavor, you won’t even remember that you’re eating GF pasta!
RP’s Pasta – fresh, soft, ready to cook fettuccine, fusilli and linguini. Incredible!
Canyon River Bakehouse – My coworker bought me a loaf of this bread and it’s the only kind I will eat now! It has that doughy texture that is so often missing with GF breads.
Udi’s – This GF powerhouse brand boasts tons of items including bread loafs and summer staples like hot dog and hamburger buns. They also have delicious looking muffins that I have yet to try!
You will notice most GF bread is very crumbly since it is lacking the elasticity that gluten provides, but you’ll get used to it. I recommend lightly toasting it first if you plan on using for a sandwich! It helps keep it all together.
Buy xantham gum. It’s pricey, but most GF recipes call for a small amount of this ingredient that helps to bring the dough-like consistency and elasticity to your baked goods.
If you’re ambitious, experiment with different combinations or flours and starches until you find a blend that’s to your liking. But if you’re short on time (like me), the above mixes will do the trick!
Glutino’s – Offers a ton of options, including crackers and pretzels that taste 99% the same as the gluten-filled kind!
Chex cereals – almost every kind is gluten free. Apple cinnamon, corn, rice, and honey nut are all safe bets. Avoid the Wheat Chex and Multi-Bran varieties.
Fruits, veggies, cheese, and nuts (check labels—I have found some nut and trail mixes that include gluten!) are my staple snacks.
Amy’s— Frozen meals with many of them clearly labeled GF on the front of the box. Favorites include any enchilada variation (made with corn tortillas), burritos, and the GF mac and cheese is pretty incredible!
Applegate Farms – This organic and natural meat company makes great chicken nuggets and tenders that crisp up perfectly in the oven. Just had them for dinner this week! Just be careful as they also offer a non-GF kind with very similar labeling, so read the box carefully!
Crispy and organic:
Van’s Wheat Free Waffles – so, so good. Still looking for the perfect GF pancake recipe!
The frozen section can be the mecca of GF finds, so never skip this aisle. You can find pizzas, entrees, muffins, breads, cookies, pie crusts, and all sorts of goodies here in a well-stocked store.
Of course Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and many health food stores will have wide selections, but many more standard grocery stores have started to feature gluten-free dedicated sections, like Shop-Rite. For anyone with access to Fresh Direct delivery service, they also have an incredible selection.
Beware of cross contamination. People with celiac cannot even eat something that has ever touched gluten. So order that burger without the bun (otherwise the burger will still have traces of gluten on it).
Always read ingredient labels! By law, the FDA requires labeling a product with the phrase “CONTAINS WHEAT,” if it does, but there could be other gluten-containing ingredients included, such as barley, bulgur, durum, malt, rye, spelt, seitan, wheat germ, farina, hydrolyzed plant/vegetable protein and anything vague like “modified food starch,” “seasonings,” “flavorings,” etc. For more official info from the FDA, click here:http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm265212.htm
Always double things that you wouldn’t necessarily think would have gluten, like salad dressings, chicken stocks, sauces, candies, gum, and stay away from soy sauce (learn to love tamari!).
When dining out, I always note in my reservation that one member in the party has a gluten allergy, as I find that most restaurants are accommodating if they know ahead of time and can let you know what your options are (OpenTable is great for this). Or, I pick a couple of items from the menu that I think look gluten-free, and then ask my server if they are safe. I find the servers find it more manageable to check on a couple of dishes than to ask about the entire menu (although a good restaurant will know this ahead of time). If your server doesn’t seem to understand what a gluten allergy/intolerance or celiac is, always ask to speak with a manager and go as far as to ask if they make an effort to avoid cross-contamination. Better to be safe than sorry.
Foil is your new best friend. When cooking in a toaster or conventional oven, line your baking sheets and pans with foil to avoid cross contamination (especially helpful if you’re the only one in your family who is GF).
If you do have celiac, remember that gluten is not just in food. Be sure to check your makeup products, shampoos, lotions, literally anything that comes in contact with your body.
Be prepared to shell out some extra cash. GF items in the supermarket are typically more expensive, but once you find your favorite, it’s worth it!
Eat clean. There’s never gluten in fresh fruits, vegetables and fresh protein/fish!
Here are some of my own favorite resources:
The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook Paperback by Editors at America’s Test Kitchen (so many great tips in this!)
The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide by Elisabeth Hasselbeck
It’s important to note that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are not trying to be part of a fad. Their only option to leading healthy, happy lives is to abstain from gluten. But whatever your feelings are, be sure to speak with your doctor, listen to your body, and do whatever makes you feel best.
Melissa Yurasits is the Jersey Bites Regional Editor for Jersey City. Melissa grew up on the Jersey Shore and returned to the Garden State after four years of living in Boston for college. Works in publicity/promotions by day but at night loves checking out new restaurants or cooking up new recipes with her boyfriend in their Jersey City apartment. Can’t name a favorite food, except for anything and everything cooked by her Dad, who doesn’t believe in recipes (but it turns out amazing everytime!).