Imagine your fridge without beer or your pantry without pasta. Or imagine trying to satisfy your late-night cravings without fried goods.
These things may seem unthinkable, but they’re just a few of the challenges faced by the roughly three million people in America who suffer from incurable allergies to gluten – a protein found in foods made from wheat and related grains, including barley and rye.
I’m not one of these people, but my boyfriend, Justin Gaar, is, and my sympathy for the cause dragged me into cleaning out my fridge. Ever since Justin found out that he has a gluten allergy, or celiac disease, part of our routine has been a strategic battle against wheat.
Finding new places to eat gluten-free in Birmingham, scrutinizing shelves in supermarkets and checking labels of every edible are some of our daily tasks in the hopes of finding a celiac-friendly oasis in a world ruled by wheat — and in a state where many food items are deep-fried in batter containing wheat.
Justin has a physiological intolerance to wheat that can cause chronic malnutrition. If he consumes any amount of the grain, the gluten is recognized as an invader, and part of his intestines stop absorbing nutrients, which leads to malnutrition. This, in turn, can lead to long-term health problems and a shorter life expectancy than that of people who do not have the allergy.
Because there is no pharmaceutical treatment for celiac disease, the only way to avoid malnutrition is a 100-percent gluten-free diet. What makes life difficult for the celiac is that wheat is everywhere and serves as the basis of the American diet. It is in most processed foods and medications. It is in beer, pasta, bread, most fried food, some toothpastes, chocolate and even lip balms.
The average person consumes around 136 pounds of wheat each year. According to a study by Oklahoma State University, wheat was the second-most produced grain in 2009 and takes more acres for harvesting than any other. Moreover, the United States ranked first in the world in wheat exports and fourth in wheat consumption that year.
In fact, Justin and I learned recently that even a vitamin supplement he was taking every day was a gluten mine.
For people with gluten allergies, the tiniest particle of wheat can contaminate their food and annul their nutrient intake. When an otherwise gluten-free dish contains a crumb of flour or even touches any flour, it becomes inedible.
For those trying to go gluten-free, ruling out wheat-based products is the first task.
The second is to reconsider eating out, because restaurants usually cook all kinds of wheat-based foods, so cross-contamination is very likely.
For instance, I knew we were taking a risk in ordering a salad minus the croutons one day. The dish came with croutons and apologies from the waiter. He said I could just pick the pieces of bread out of the salad, but the salad had already been contaminated by merely touching the bread.
But waiters and restaurants are not the ones to blame. There’s little public awareness about celiac disease, so not even all of the celiacs know that they suffer from this particular condition.
Most symptoms of celiac disease are easily mistaken for those of other conditions, such as Chron’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome, meaning that at least 95 percent of celiacs go misdiagnosed. In fact, most people who suspect they have celiac disease require an average of four to six years to be sure that they have it. Justin is in the fifth month of his diet and is still not sure if it’s working.
Luckily, there are a lot of options to eat gluten-free around Birmingham, enough to sustain a gluten-allergic through these years of uncertainty. Any establishment that serves baked potatoes, rice dishes, salads (no croutons, please) or soups (when thickened with something other than wheat flour) is a celiac-friendly place.
For instance, Cosmo’s Pizza at Five Points serves gluten-free pizza.
Virtually every Mexican restaurant replaces wheat tortillas with corn tortillas. Ordering sandwiches without the bread is weird, but doable.
And among the fast-food joints, Wendy’s serves a gluten-free chili.
However, even if all of the ingredients in a dish are indeed celiac-friendly, there’s no way of knowing that a meal is not contaminated unless it is cooked in a gluten-free facility. So to avoid unwanted croutons or other less visible gluten particles, cooking at home is a safe alternative.
For example, in most recipes, corn, rice or tapioca flour can be substituted for wheat flour.
And it’s not necessary to cook everything from scratch. In fact, clearing the pantry of gluten is becoming easier every day as gluten-free products become safer, more popular and more common in stores. There are gluten-free cookies, chips, beer, vinegar, soups, crackers and several brands of gluten-free cake mixes. In addition, most raw produce is naturally gluten-free.
Sales of gluten-free products reached more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 and are expected to almost double by 2015, according to food industry site packagedfacts.com.
This market change is obvious in the stores. WalMart recently added a shelf dedicated to gluten-free products. Whole Foods just started labeling their shelves with a very visible tag, and Publix and Big Lots carry a lot of celiac-friendly brands.
Of course, not every store carries every single brand of gluten-free products, and when they do, gluten-free products are more expensive than regular products.
And while cooking at home is always a lot of work, cooking gluten-free is even more time-consuming. At least in the beginning, cooking wheat-free requires careful planning and label reading – a lot of really careful label reading.
Even though the FDA has safety requirements for gluten-free labeling, mistakes are common. Some brands actually label products as gluten-free just because they seem “gluten-free (enough)” for them. Fortunately, the FDA is working to improve its gluten-free labeling recommendation.
Despite all of the difficulties, being intolerant to gluten is not the end of the world. It is the beginning of a new one, and eating a completely wheat-free diet is absolutely possible. It may mean complete awareness of every ounce of food ingested for the rest of one’s life, but it can also take you one step closer to a healthier diet and, therefore, a healthier lifestyle.
It is possible to live without wheat, even in deep-fried Alabama.
Helena Corzan is a Weld Local correspondent. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.