You’ve no doubt noticed the rise of gluten-free products in your local supermarket. Gluten has become a buzzword in the nutrition industry nowadays, similar to vegan or low carb. Gluten is to this decade what carbohydrate and fat was to the ’80s and ’90s claimed a recent article in Time magazine.
Best-selling books have linked gluten with everything from autism to multiple sclerosis and diabetes among many other health issues. The demand for gluten-free products has exploded with the ‘free-from’ grocery market worth more than £800 million (approximately $1 billion). And that’s expected to grow by a further 50 percent by 2021 according to a report by Talking Retail.
Gluten-free food isn’t cheap either with research finding gluten-free alternatives to be a whopping average 242 percent more expensive. It can also be difficult to know which foods are gluten free. Join us as we look at what gluten is and present our definitive list of gluten-free foods.
What Is Gluten?
At its simplest form, gluten is the name given to a family of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, barley and oats. Derived from the Latin word for glue, gluten proteins when mixed with water create a glue-like stickiness.
Gluten gives your bread or pizza crust that elasticity or doughiness. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Banh Mi sandwich in Vietnam, it’s what makes the bread so delicious, with the Vietnamese adding extra gluten to the bread mix.
Gluten also gives strength to pasta and many noodles. Sauces and gravies may often use gluten to thicken them. And sometimes processed foods will add gluten for preserving the food or enhancing the flavor and consistency.
Why Go Gluten-Free?
For most people, gluten isn’t a serious threat to their health. Some people will argue it causes them to feel bloated and is responsible for digestive problems. Other individuals may suffer from a gluten rash or inflammation due to an excessive consumption of gluten.
A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 diseases that could be made worse or caused by gluten.But for people with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, cutting gluten from their diet isn’t a fad, it’s a necessity for a healthy life. Recent figures suggest that at least three million Americans are affected by celiac disease.
But the largest number of people following a gluten-free diet are doing so by choice. PWAGS (people without celiac disease avoiding gluten) account for 72 percent of people following a gluten-free diet across the U.S. It’s particularly popular among younger adults ages 20 to 39, females, and non-Hispanic whites. Most researchers agree further studies are needed to assess the validity of a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-Free Foods, Where Do You Start?
If you’re thinking of or need to start a gluten-free diet, it can be tricky. You may think just cutting any wheats and grains from your diet will eliminate gluten. But gluten lurks everywhere, even in some beverages you consume daily.
Labels on popular products and ingredients list will often leave you bewildered and more confused. There are foods which will be off-limits when going gluten-free but there are many more you can safely eat. An FDA-approved ‘gluten free’ label will quickly become your new best friend.
Although a ‘gluten free’ label isn’t required by law, if a manufacturer or supplier uses one on a product it must meet the final rule of the FDA since 2014. This defines a product marked as gluten free to be inherently gluten free and meet the following three conditions:
- The food doesn’t use any gluten-containing ingredient like spelt wheat.
- The food isn’t derived from a gluten-containing ingredient which hasn’t been processed to remove gluten i.e. wheat flour.
- Any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food should be less than 20 parts per million.
Let’s look at the many food groups and the safe products that exist in each.
Bet that surprised you!
Let’s start with the group you don’t expect to see on a list of gluten-free foods. But there are many grains free from gluten which can be easily found at most supermarkets. Some others may require hunting down in speciality or health-food stores. Ty to avoid buying from bulk bins which may be cross-contaminated with gluten.
Grains are an important part of any healthy diet. Whole grains are a good source of carbohydrates which provides you with energy for the day ahead. The high-fiber content of most grains will keep you feeling fuller and help with digestion.
Popular gluten-free grains include:
These grains will often carry the ‘gluten free’ label as long as they meet the requirements of the FDA.
Bread is one thing most people assume they would miss most when choosing gluten-free foods. Fortunately grocery stores and supermarkets now carry gluten-free bread and other baked products. They’ll usually be in the freezer section as they don’t last as long without gluten.
Before buying a loaf of bread ensure it carries the ‘gluten free’ label. Many celiacs and people with gluten sensitivity argue they can eat breads that use ingredients like sprouted wheat or Einkorn wheat (an ancient type of wheat). Hogwash! If the label on the bread lists wheat as an ingredient, don’t buy it—it contains gluten and is likely to make you sick!
To be completely sure you’re getting a gluten-free bread you could bake your own at home. Many of the gluten-free grains can be milled into flours suitable for baking bread. Some companies like Bisquick even produce gluten-free blends of flour suitable for baking.
The following YouTube video shows just how easy it is to make your own gluten-free bread at home.
Choosing a gluten-free diet no longer means missing out on pasta. There’s now a wide range of pasta options available in all shapes and sizes from fettucine to lasagna sheets. Gluten-free pasta will often be made from corn, rice or sometimes even grains like quinoa.
Ensure any pasta you buy is labeled as gluten free, with more well-known brands now producing their own range. Experiment with different brands to find the one that helps you to create pasta dishes that taste just as good as their gluten-containing counterparts. An alternative gluten-free option is to use a spiralizer and make your own pasta-like noodles from fresh vegetables like zucchini.
A healthy gluten-free breakfast is a harder choice with most of your favorite breakfast cereals now out of bounds. Fortunately the major cereal manufacturers are now making their own gluten-free version of your favorites including gluten-free Chex or Kellogg’s Special K. Gluten-free cereals include hot or cold options, granola and many kid-friendly options, just don’t expect Weetabix to be on the list.
Make sure you check the packaging for a ‘gluten free’ label before buying any cereal and also be cautious if you’re celiac or hypersensitive to gluten. Cheerios initially made many people sick when first produced as a gluten-free cereal. It was found that wheat flour in the production facility had cross contaminated the boxes of Cheerios—currently celiac disease experts don’t recommend anyone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance consume gluten-free Cheerios.
Naturally Gluten-Free Foods
The most-cost effective and healthy way to cut out gluten is to use products from a naturally gluten-free food group. These include fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy and beans, legumes or nuts. Again natural ingredients may also carry a gluten-free label.
Vegetables and Fruits
All fresh and whole vegetables and fruits are naturally gluten-free and a key part of a gluten-free diet. They are low in calories, fat and sodium while delivering a variety of vitamins and minerals and being a good source of antioxidants.
The problem with fruit and vegetables occurs when you move away from the fresh produce stands and into the frozen or tinned aisles. Many processed fruit and vegetables can be prepared or preserved with gluten-containing ingredients. These can include:
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein.
- Modified food starches where the source of starch isn’t identified.
- Malt—including malt syrup/malt vinegar/malt extract or flavoring.
- Gluten stabilizer.
- Maltodextrin which may be made from wheat.
When buying tinned fruits or vegetables, choosing those packaged in their natural juices or water will avoid most gluten. For dried or pre-prepared vegetables and fruit always double check the label for potential gluten ingredients added for flavor or stabilizing. To be completely free of gluten, it’s always better to buy fresh fruit and vegetables—as long as you’re not buying them from a market next to a wheat field!
Here’s the good news!
Going gluten-free doesn’t mean you have to give up any of your favorite meats. Fresh cuts of red meat at your local grocery store or butcher are generally safe on a gluten-freediet, when in their natural state.
People have often asked what about grain-fed cattle? According to the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA), animal products don’t contain gluten and are safe for consumption by those with celiac disease. Proteins like gluten are broken down in the stomach and further broken down into smaller amino acids in the small intestine when by this time the gluten protein no longer exists.
Be wary of meats or prepackaged cuts which have been marinated or in a sauce ready to cook or eat. Most of these aren’t suitable for a gluten-free diet as the store may use unsafe sauces or even breadcrumbs as a filler. Information on the ingredients can be sketchy at the best and often non-existent so I normally steer clear of them—it’s just as easy and normally tastier to marinate at home.
Other cross contamination of gluten risks exist on the butchers counter when meats have no plastic wrap covering them. The same display case or counter may contain foods with breadcrumbs or other gluten-containing ingredients. Fans in the fridge unit can blow loose crumbs onto the meat or airborne gluten may contaminate it.
Gluten-Free Ham, Hot Dogs, Sausages and Other Processed Meats
Many of the hams and cold cuts you see for sale meet the U.S. FDA definition of gluten free and contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. Phosphates and other spices used to cure meats are generally gluten free. The problem with cold cuts occurs when they’ve been breadcrumbed or had other potentially gluten-containing ingredients added.
Hormel and Hillshire Farms are two popular brands that make packaged gluten-free deli meats. Cross contamination can strike again at the deli counter when a meat slicer is shared with gluten-containing products. Where possible try to buy pre-packaged gluten-free labeled meats rather than buying at the counter.
Sausages and burgers are a major source of gluten with breadcrumbs commonly used as a filler and binding agent. Check labels carefully before buying sausages with some brands of gluten-free sausages now available. Making your own burgers with ground beef is a safer way of ensuring gluten-freeburgers, although ensure the ground meat you purchase contains no gluten fillers.
Poultry is also consideredto be safe when talking about gluten-free foods. Both chicken and turkey are naturally gluten-free but be careful to choose a bird which hasn’t been plumped with additional liquid. A broth or liquid used must be disclosed on a label but the ingredients don’t have to be broken down. If in doubt, ask the butcher or contact the manufacturer.
As with meat products, check for any sauces or marinades that may have been added to prepared chicken dishes. Fried chicken dishes will normally have a flour coating which makes them unsuitable for a gluten-free diet. And if celiac or extra sensitive to gluten, try to check if any frozen products are produced in a gluten-free environment.
One of the biggest risks for hidden gluten in your local store is the rotisserie chicken. The main culprit is a light dusting of flour used to make it crispier or gluten ingredients in the spice rub used. Only buy rotisserie chicken when labeled as gluten free and ensure it’s not prepared next to the fried chicken if more sensitive to gluten.
Fish and Seafood
Most, if not all, varieties of seafood are gluten free before being seasoned and cooked. Fish is an excellent source of protein and a great start to a gluten-free meal. And with so many varieties, you need not get bored having the same type of fish every time you eat gluten-free seafood!
Good news for those Brits out there who like their fish and chips. As long as they use a gluten-free batter there’s no reason you can’t enjoy your weekly chip shop takeaway. In the U.K. the National Federation of Fish Fryers work closely with celiac associations to ensure many shops and restaurants are gluten free—but more about eating out later.
So far so good!
As long as you’re eating fresh, unprocessed meats or fish cooked with no gluten-adding ingredients you’ll still be eatinggluten-free foods. And most animal products are a good source of protein essential for any healthy diet.
Gluten-Free Milk and Dairy Produce
You’d assume all milk and dairy produce was safe and gluten free but as always there are some exceptions. Plain milk, regardless of its fat content, is gluten free but many flavored milks may contain gluten—check the ingredients or look for that magic label. Malted milk products, including milkshakes are off the menu since malt is made with gluten-containing barley.
Most other natural dairy products are gluten free too. Plain yogurt is safe but check the ingredients list of any flavored yogurts and stay away from flavors with cookies or granola. Eggs and butter are gluten free although you should always check the label with margarine and shortening. (Coconut oil is a suitable alternative for shortening or Spectrum makes a palm oil based shortening which is gluten free).
Plant-based milks, for the vegans out there, tend to begluten free, but not all of them are. One which is labeled as gluten free is Rice Dream rice milk which many people are reporting a reaction to. This could be due to the barley enzymes with which it’s processed.
Most cheeses should be safewhen it comes to gluten. Blue cheeses are likely to contain gluten as they use wheat as a catalyst when producing the blue mold in it. Check with the maker or choose one labeledgluten free if in doubt. Beer-washed cheeses, the latest trend with many cheesemakers should also be avoided when following a gluten-free diet.
Cross contamination is a potential risk when buying cheese that has been cut up and repackaged in the store. In most stores, the portioning of cheeses will take place at the deli counter also used for slicing gluten-containing or breaded meats. They may even make their sandwiches at the same counter—which explains the gluten reaction from that Cheddar I bought last week!
Gluten-Free Manufactured Foods
That’s the easy part over!
When it comes to natural versus processed, gluten-free foods, you’re looking at whole new ballgame. This is where that ‘gluten free’ sticker can save you a whole load of time. Although many foods which aren’t labeled may still be gluten free, always check the label to see if your favorites are still safe.
Gluten-Free Sauces and Spices
Sauces are one of the most common places where gluten hides. Many of the sauces you see on your supermarket shelves use gluten-containing ingredients as a thickener, stabilizer or flavor enhancer. Wheat flour is a common thickener in most sauces and marinades, which makes them not gluten free.
Cross contamination can be a major issue with sauces and condiments especially at home. If for example you spread some mustard on a gluten-containing piece of bread you shouldn’t dip the knife back into the mustard jar if you want it to remain gluten free.
Most mustards, mayonnaise and dry spices don’t contain any gluten, although check the label of any speciality mixes. Sauces like ketchup and Worcestershire sauce can both be made with malt vinegar, which isn’t gluten free. BBQ sauces are often made with grain-based beer, soy, malt vinegar or barley malt, all of which contain gluten. And soy sauce is traditionally made with wheat so isn’t gluten free, unless otherwise stated.
Soy sauce deserves a mention of its own, with many people who follow a gluten-free diet worried they may never enjoy Asian food again. Looking on the back of most soy sauce bottle labels you’ll find one of the primary ingredients is wheat. Soy sauce is actually made from the fermented paste of soybeans, roasted grains, brine and aspergillus oryzae.
With an emerging demand for gluten-free products most soy sauce manufacturers have now started to produce gluten-free soy sauce. The most commonly found in supermarkets and major grocery stores are Kikkoman gluten-free soy sauce and Little Soya soy sauce. Japanese-style tamari soy sauce is another option traditionally made without wheat and a byproduct of miso paste.
Gluten-Free Sweets and Desserts
There are now many gluten-free ready prepared desserts and ice creams available. In the past you may have had to steer clear of certain flavors including cookie dough or granola ice creams but now even Ben & Jerry’s has embraced the gluten-free ethos. You can find ice cream sandwiches, too, that use gluten-free wafers if you look hard enough.
Alternative flours may be used to make cakes and biscuits. Grains can be cut from biscuit-based desserts with many gluten-free cookies or dough mixes now available. Be careful when choosing a crustless cheesecake as sometimes they may have wheat flour in the filling.
Chocolate doesn’t naturally contain gluten but some manufacturers may use add-ins that do contain gluten. Hard candies and gummies are normally gluten-free too although avoid any that list wheat flour as an ingredient. Traditional licorice sweets are normally made with wheat flour and some sweets may use barley malt as a sweetener.
Gluten-Free Drinks and Beverages
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes togluten-free drinks. Of course, one of the most common things we drink, water, is gluten free and the healthiest way to stay hydrated. For all prepared beverages and fruit-based drinks ensure to check the labels for ingredients.
Coffee beans will often be labeled as gluten free which can be confusing. Both coffee and tea are naturally gluten free, but sometimes there can be cross contamination or added ingredients in blended beverages. If buying coffee on the go, be sure to stick to Dunkin’ Donuts, Caribou Coffee, or Starbucks as these only use gluten-free beans.
Most carbonated beverages are gluten free as well. All the Coca-Cola range of drinks boasts to contain no more than 20 ppm of gluten, with PepsiCo drinks also gluten free. Fanta, Dr Pepper, 7UP and most major brands of root beer are safe to consume if looking for gluten-free drinks.
Things get more complicated when it comes to alcoholic beverages and gluten. Beer is the worst offender being made with hops, barley and rye so is definitely not gluten free. Cider made from fermented apples is a better choice. Many companies are now producing gluten-free beers, especially the craft brewers. Unfortunately Guinness, one of the world’s most popular beers is made with barley containing gliadin, a component found in gluten which triggers inflammation of the small intestine.
Wine that’s made from grapes is generally safe although certain processes in wine making can introduce gluten to the final product. The ageing process may add gluten if the wine maker uses a flour or wheat paste to seal the oak barrels for ageing. The resulting wine will typically contain less than 20 ppm of gluten, but a person with high sensitivity or celiac may experience a reaction. Colorings or flavoring used in some wines may contain gluten—if in doubt ask your local wine merchant or check on the vineyard’s website.
Some people argue that the distillation process renders hard liquors gluten free and safe to drink. But many with celiac disease or gluten intolerance have reported side effects of drinking hard alcohol. Rum made from cane sugar and tequila from natural agave are both gluten free but spirits like whiskey, gin, bourbon and vodka use grains in the brewing process. Sometimes the distillation process may not be performedcorrectly or ingredients may be added after distillation that include gluten—if in doubt, try a very small amount of a brand considered to begluten free, like Johnnie Walker, first.
Gluten-Free Ready Meals
Being gluten free doesn’t mean you have to spend too many extra hours in the kitchen, just maybe a few more reading the labels. Local supermarkets and grocery stores now carry many gluten-free frozen dinners from manufacturers like Amy’s Kitchen, Glutino or Saffron Road. Simply ensure that any frozen meal you purchase has the ‘gluten free’ label attached as others that aren’t marked are likely to contain gluten ingredients.
Health stores and the dry goods section of your local grocery store may also include some prepared foods labeled gluten free. Thai Kitchen makes some gluten-free dishes that are simple to prepare, often only needing you to add water. And Lotus makes several flavors of gluten-free ramen noodles for a quick snack.
The best invention ever for me was the frozen gluten-free pizza. Available in several varieties, including vegan options, more and more stores are now carrying one or two. You may have to look harder to find them as some stores will place them in the natural foods frozen section instead of the regular frozen pizza section.
Eating out with Gluten-Free Foods
When preparing your own food at home you can take measures to ensure you’re only eating gluten-free foods. But what do you do when you go out? Most restaurants and cafes now include gluten-free options, with some fast food chains even jumping in on the action.
Although many restaurant feature the magic words gluten free on many items or even have gluten-free menus, you should be careful of cross contamination. One company that has taken extra precaution against gluten cross contamination is Garlic Jim’s Famous Gourmet Pizza. Using separate storage, utensils and sauce containers for all its gluten-free food prep and they use gluten-free flour for slapping of all its pizzas—even the airborne flour is gluten free.
Unfortunately not all restaurants are as diligent with many using the same fryers or broilers for both gluten and gluten-free menu items. If in doubt ask your server who will be able to advise you on the kitchen practices. Arby’s is one chain which features an extensive gluten-free menu but then prepares its fries in the same oil as it cooks gluten foods. At least they make an effort while major players like KFC and McDonalds are yet to offer any gluten-free menus.
Should We Be Buying More Gluten-Free Foods?
Following a gluten-free diet may seem like an enormous and impossible task. It’ll seem even more daunting if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. You have to make the change, and you need to make it quick.
There’s certainly a wider choice of gluten-free foods available now than 20 years ago. As our awareness of gluten intolerance has increased so has our demand for gluten-free foods. Manufacturers have been quick to recognize this and gluten-free food is now what low-fat foods were to the 1990s.
Choosing gluten-free foods doesn’t need to cost you an arm and a leg. Many natural foods are gluten free and preparing them at home will ensure they stay free of gluten. Most restaurants now accommodate gluten-free menu items, and you can even enjoy the odd gluten-free beer or two.