How hard is gluten-free cooking?

Faced with the diagnosis of celiac disease, or gluten intolerance or allergies, the idea of learning a whole new way of cooking for and feeding one’s self can be daunting. There is good food after gluten, though, so let’s take a look at what gluten is, where it shows up in the food supply and how easily it can be avoided in cooking. Gluten-free cooking isn’t much different from any other cooking, but you do have to know what your ingredients are made of.

Formed by two different protein molecules, gluten is a natural part of many cereal grains that, in cooking and baking, holds grain flour together, giving elasticity to bread and pasta dough, and providing thickening or emulsifying properties to things like gravy or pudding. Gluten is present in anything made out of wheat, rye and barley. Many foods made with oats may also contain gluten, not because the same gluten is naturally present in oats, but because most oats are processed in facilities that also process grains that contain gluten. Cross-contamination with gluten in the processing and packaging equipment happens, so only oats labeled gluten-free can be presumed to be processed in a gluten-free facility. Grains, and therefore gluten, are also the principal ingredients in most beer.

Gluten also makes its way into the packaged food supply in many different forms, making reading labels an absolute must for those with intolerance, allergy or other issues related to gluten. For example, you wouldn’t expect potatoes to contain gluten, and in and of themselves they don’t, but processed potatoes, such as frozen French fries often do contain gluten, because it’s used to make the seasoning adhere to the potato, and to help brown them in the oven. The same is true for some processed and flavored nuts, seeds and corn chips. In fact, many packaged foods make use of gluten-based products in the seasoning blends. If you cook with a lot of packaged foods, it becomes critical to read labels when you’ve got gluten intolerance or disease issues.

There is a broad selection of pre-packed, pre-made gluten-free food on the market these days, but when you are looking at changing to gluten-free foods, it’s important to recognize that there may be substitutes in that pre-packaged food that might not be any better for you than the gluten. Many of those products contain different gums that enable them to cook up with similar texture and flavor to foods containing gluten. Some people who already have gluten intolerances might also find themselves intolerant to some or all of the gums used in gluten-free mixes and pre-made foods. Reading labels is the only way to become familiar with how gluten-free foods are made, so just seeing the words gluten-free on the package does not necessarily mean good for you.

A good choice for gluten-free packaged foods are those foods that are naturally gluten-free, like noodles, bread and crackers made with rice, corn or quinoa, that you will be combining with other ingredients just as would be done with these items made from wheat. For example, this vegetarian lasagna made from brown rice pasta is just as delicious as lasagna made from wheat pasta. Food made from corn, like chips, polenta, grits and hominy also can be eaten in place of food made from wheat and will work for some folks, though you’ll want to pay attention to whether or not those foods are made from GMO corn, if that’s something you’re concerned about.

There’s currently an important discussion going on across the country about GMO foods, along with a pretty heated food fight between Big Ag and most consumers about the right to know what’s in the food on our grocery store shelves. The only way to be sure you’re eating non-GMO foods is to buy foods labeled organic. That said, corn is very versatile and can be used in preparing everything from breakfast porridge, to crackers, muffins and casseroles, such as this one made with organic polenta.

One of the most difficult parts of dealing with changing foods and beverages from our diets is making a basic change in how we feed ourselves. It’s important to be able to look honestly at your own diet and start evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of, not only what you eat, but also how you eat. Eating whole foods, prepared at home makes avoiding gluten fairly easy, unless you aren’t used to eating whole foods, prepared at home. Consideration of how much and what foods you do prepare at home can be the first step in changing how you feed yourself.

A good way to start rethinking what you eat in your diet to eliminate gluten is to make a list of all the foods you eat that, naturally, don’t contain gluten. Taking this approach first, rather than looking at all of the foods you can no longer eat, makes the transition feel a little less punishing, and it might even surprise you to see how much you already are eating gluten-free. Then take on the list of those gluten-full things that you eat all the time. Eliminate any of them you can’t buy or make for yourself from gluten-free ingredients, which you’ll probably find won’t be many.

Start reading labels when you shop, and reading recipes in books or online to figure out how to make some alternatives for yourself at home. The Internet offers an endless choice of recipe websites, including a good many that focus only on gluten-free cooking. The more you prepare food at home, the more control you have over what goes into your food.

This article is intended to shift the way you think about what and how you eat, based on the author’s opinions and personal experience. It is always wise to seek advice and guidance from a professional health practitioner when considering any major dietary changes.

Posted in Cooking