Like low carb and trans fat before it, the term "gluten" has been thrown around a lot in the last few years, as some people are diagnosed with a gluten allergy or sensitivity, and others experiment with a gluten-free diet.
Doctors are coming across more and more patients who react poorly to gluten; while gluten sensitivities are nothing new, they’re more understood today and, as a result, are being diagnosed more.
It’s estimated that 1 percent of the population suffers from a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, though almost all experts are in agreement that this problem is hugely under diagnosed.
To set the record straight, gluten isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply a composite of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin) and, naturally, it’s found in field grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is commonly found both in its natural form and used as an additive in the food manufacturing process. As food becomes more refined, gluten is used as a stabilizing agent in products such as ketchup and ice cream. But don’t always expect to see it on a food’s ingredient list: If it’s used in the manufacturing process, it’s often not mentioned on the label of the product.
If you’re looking to pursue a gluten-free diet, the first thing to do is make sure you’re not eating any products that contain wheat. This task is easy to follow simply by reading product ingredient lists. In simple terms, you’ll want to avoid products such as pasta, breads and breakfast foods (like pancakes and bagels) and desserts like pies and cakes. We know this sounds like a monumental task, but thanks to the rising incidences of gluten allergies, replacement foods are readily available. Most health food stores now offer entire gluten-free aisles, and many grocery stores are also following suit.
Here’s where things can get tricky. Because gluten is often used as a binder, it’s not always mentioned on food labels, which makes it difficult to maintain a gluten-free diet. Before shopping, it’s worth checking out company websites of any foods you’re suspicious of or contacting the companies if the information isn’t provided. Likewise, when dining out, don’t be afraid to ask if a certain dish contains gluten. Servers at upscale restaurants will likely know offhand, while others will ask the kitchen for you.
10. Cream Soups
The key to making any cream soup is the roux, which is basically flour, butter and milk or cream. You might not think of flour when you get ready to dig into cream of asparagus soup, for example, but it’s more than likely lurking in your bowl. As an alternative, try a stock-based, pasta-free soup. But be careful: Lots of stock contains gluten, so soups aren’t a good option until you’ve safely identified which is best.
9. Soy Sauce
If you’re looking to avoid gluten, you should skip the Chinese buffet, much of which is breaded. Soy sauce may seem like the least of your worries, but the cheap stuff contains wheat and may or may not mention it on the label. If you enjoy the taste of soy sauce, seek out tamari soy sauce, which is wheat free and tastes better anyway.
8. Some Ice Cream
Ice cream is void of gluten in most cases, but it’s easy to get excited about your tub of triple fudge brownie, only to remember that brownies are full of wheat. In this case, wheat will be identified on the product label, but make sure to carefully read any ice cream that’s simpler than plain vanilla. If you’re the industrious type, try making ice cream at home -- it’s better for you and you’ll know exactly what’s in it.
7. Salad Dressing
Whether it’s a cream- or oil-based dressing, there’s a pretty good chance gluten is used in the product’s manufacturing process; in this case, it will likely not be mentioned on the label. You can contact the manufacturer to determine if gluten is part of the dressing, or better still, make your own -- it’s far healthier and will save you the time of a phone call or e-mail.
6. Many Sauces
Just as cream soups are most likely to contain wheat, many sauces do as well. Some sauces will identify wheat on their ingredient lists (make sure to look because you’d be surprised where wheat will appear), while others don’t list it at all. You’re most likely to run into trouble at restaurants, where wheat is commonly added to sauce as a way to increase its quantity at a low cost. At Thanksgiving, you’ll have to make your gravy without wheat flour, but using corn starch in its place is a good -- and barely noticeable -- alternative.
5. Some Vitamins
You may take your morning vitamin without a second thought, but you’d probably be surprised to know that some vitamins contain gluten. Used in the manufacturing process, gluten won’t be listed on the bottle, but occasionally you’ll see a vitamin that boasts its gluten-free qualities. Obviously, you shouldn’t just stop taking your vitamins because of a fear of gluten. The best thing to do is to contact the vitamin’s maker and find out what’s in it.
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4. Potato Chips
Most chips are safe, but make sure to check each bag before buying. Some -- especially those with heavy seasoning -- contain wheat. In this case, identifying it will be easy, but it’s worth remembering because it’s easy to mistakenly suspect potato chips are free of flour. Health food stores often sell gluten-free chips, but you’re safe to try regular chips at the grocery store -- after examining the product list.
Any bottle of ketchup will list ingredients such as tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, and spices. However, the bottle won’t announce that gluten was added during the product’s manufacturing process. Gluten-free ketchup is a common item at the health food store, but you may not want to pay two or three times the price of a normal bottle for it. Fortunately, Heinz ketchup is gluten-free, as are many of the company’s products. Heinz has taken steps in recent years to highlight each of its foods online and identify whether or not each contains gluten.
A piece of licorice is pretty far removed from a field of wheat, but rest assured, most candy contains gluten -- and it rarely appears on the package’s list of ingredients. The gooey gluten protein helps bind the candy and keep it chewy. Watch for candy -- and any other heavily refined foods -- that contains the terms “natural flavor” among the ingredients. Natural flavor can encompass many things, including gluten. Your best alternative is to try specific gluten-free candy or avoid it entirely.
1. Sausages and Prepared Meats
Food manufacturers often bulk up processed meats with wheat. Why? Because it’s cheaper than real meat, and once you’ve added enough spices and smoky flavor, the consumer can’t tell the difference. Completely avoid luncheon meats, sausages and flavored hamburger patties. Instead, look for gluten-free sliced meat at the health food store, sausages without wheat filler (it should be indicated on the label) and 100% pure beef patties.