In a column I once wrote for Food Network Canada, I used to sign off with a jokey bio: “Devon will eat anything except roasted silkworm and bananas.” To me, that was a punchy way of expressing my food philosophy — that eating is not just a physiological necessity, but an opportunity for adventure.
I’ve approached food like that my whole life, from my early days as the kid who breathlessly described her first sushi dinner to her disgusted small town classmates (it was the 80’s, and sushi was still weird in rural Ontario), to the grown-up who suffered multiple bouts of food poisoning in search of Asia’s best street food (mango sticky rice in Chiang Mai? Crispy kimchi pajeon in Seoul? I can’t decide.)
So learning that I have a severe gluten intolerance has been a blow to my identity as a culinary adventurer. If you’re reading this today because you can’t eat it either, I feel for you. Yes, there are worst problems, but food restrictions are not fun, especially when that restriction covers so many delicious items and especially when you’re a die-hard foodie.
But I’m not going to stop exploring new culinary frontiers just because my eating passport is missing a few visas, and you shouldn’t either. Here’s what I’ve learned in my first year of gluten-free eating.
1. Get Tested
Testing for celiac disease requires a gluten-filled diet, since current tools measure inflammatory reactions, either in the blood or gut. If, like me, you stopped eating gluten before being tested, the only way to get accurate results is to start eating it again. In many cases that’s not medically advisable. When I tried reintroducing, my reaction was so severe my gastroenterologist advised me to stop. As he said, it doesn’t really matter whether I have celiac disease or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) — an emerging, though still poorly understood diagnosis — because for reactions like mine, the prescription is the same; no gluten.
If you’re celiac, tests will confirm that eating gluten is dangerous to your health and you can never eat it again. But, if you’re not, there’s a possibility you might have some latitude, for instance, you might be okay eating whole grains, like simple barley, but not more processed products, like pizza crust. Or maybe you have a wheat allergy, but can still tolerate grains like rye — it’s always best to check with a doctor to help find out.
2. Hone Your Elevator Speech
Missing out on your favourite foods is hard, but it’s not the hardest part: social eating situations are. I hated losing my identity as a non-picky eater, and in the early days of my intolerance, I’d do anything to try and keep it. At restaurants, I’d inform servers that I couldn’t eat gluten, then qualify the warning with something that made me feel less difficult, like “but it’s not an anaphylactic thing, so I won’t die if you mess up.” Although true, that little qualifier meant staff didn’t take me seriously, and predictably, I got sick. Bottom line: celiac disease and NCGS are serious conditions with real health implications that deserve attention. These days I call ahead to let kitchen staff know about my restrictions. Sometimes I’m disappointed to discover restaurant staff are ill-informed and ill-prepared for my dietary needs, other times I’ve been pleasantly surprised, like when I recently learned my favourite Dutch-Indonesian restaurant cooks with gluten-free soy sauce.
I do the same thing ahead of parties, although with private events, I’ll offer to bring my own food if the host is unable or unsure how to accommodate. Bottom line: don’t be shy to voice your needs, and do be prepared to educate others on what a safe meal means for you.
3. Stick to Naturally Gluten-Free Foods
These days you can’t cruise a grocery store aisle without seeing an advertisement for a gluten-free product, but not all gluten-free foods are created the same. Most treats that aim to emulate their gluten-filled counterparts — think bread, cake mixes and pizza crusts — rely on super-refined flours and artificial stabilizers. They’re fine for the occasional treat, but the tastiest (and healthiest) gluten-free foods tend to be the ones that never needed gluten in the first place. Choose starches like corn tortillas, crunchy seed crackers, fluffy rice and quinoa or flavourful buckwheat pancakes. Enjoy the fact that meat, fish, legumes, cheese, fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free.
4. Know Your Allies
Start on a restricted diet and you’ll soon learn just how many people avoid select ingredients, whether they do so because of allergies, intolerance, or religious and ethical considerations. In my experience, your fellow restricted dieters are often the most accepting and helpful; the more niche their diet, the more helpful they’re likely to be. In other words, vegetarian restaurants are good, vegan, paleo or raw restaurants are better. I’ve discovered a whole new world of delicacies — like rich hemp seed ice cream — because they were produced with vigilance.
5. Eat These Cuisines
In areas where corn is a staple, like Latin America, much of the food will be naturally gluten-free. Plus, it’s hard to feel deprived when digging into a cheesy corn-tortilla nachos or a saucy arepa.
Same goes for India, where rice and lentils are prominent, or Ethiopian food with its teff-based injera. A word of caution: many Asian cuisines that seem gluten-free employ soy sauce, which is typically cultured with wheat. That said, Vietnamese pho, rice noodles and rice wraps are generally a solid bet, as is a much Thai food, which is often seasoned with fish sauce instead of soy. Surprisingly many Italian markets and restaurants offer solid choices, since awareness of celiac disease is quite high in that country. Cuisines that focus on simple preparations of meat, fish and vegetable, like Greek or Japanese food, often have tasty options.
6. Read Labels and Ask Questions
Just because you had a fabulous gluten-free injera at one Ethiopian restaurant doesn’t mean they don’t add wheat flour at another. Know the tricky ingredients — packaged soup stocks, sauces and spice mixes can contain unexpected gluten — and be prepared to educate friends, family and servers about them. Packaged ingredients can change, restaurant management can turn over, friends can forget, and cross contamination is real, so be vigilant. It never hurts to stash an emergency snack in your car or purse, just in case.
Bakers beware: Although there are many gluten-free flour mixes, whether store-bought or homemade, each behaves differently, depending on its exact composition. In the beginning, it’s best to start with one, learn its properties and master a few recipes before moving on to the next blend and finding the one you like best. Be prepared to experience the frustrations and joys of learning to bake all over again. And don’t forget to search Foodnetwork.ca for gluten-free baking tips: Anna Olson has some particularly drool-worthy recipes.
I’m still holding out for the day researchers develop a gluten-busting pill that works like Lactaid does for the lactose intolerant, but until that day comes (and there’s reason to believe it may be soon), I’m not going to stop exploring. In many ways, gluten-free eating has forced me into a new era of creative cookery, as I try to recreate favourite flavours and seek out new, safe, treats. Focus on what you can eat and as much as possible, try to emphasize discovery over deprivation. Happy eating!