G oing gluten-free means learning where and how to look out for gluten, since it's not just in the breadbasket, but also in unexpected products such as some candies, salad dressings, medications, and adhesives. For people with celiac disease, a completely gluten-free diet usually results in a healed intestine and reversal of symptoms within six months—an astounding relief that more than makes up for the inconvenience of a major diet change. Read on for tips about shopping for gluten-free groceries and advice on dining out.
The more you know about food, the easier it is to determine hidden sources of gluten. This is not so much of an issue when you're cooking with raw ingredients, but when it comes to processed foods with long ingredient lists, reading labels is a must. Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, the presence of gluten must now be itemized on American food labels. In addition, labels must say if the food is processed on equipment that is also used to process wheat.
If a label does not state that the contents are gluten-free, but the ingredient list contains no gluten, wheat, barley, rye, or wheat relatives like spelt, triticale, and kamut, you can contact the manufacturer to assess the risks. Look for well-sealed plastic or metal packaging, since products in unlined paper can become contaminated if they're stored near wheat. For help figuring out whether a hard-to-pronounce food additive is a source of gluten, you can order this wallet-sized How to Read a Label Card from The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
Avoiding Gluten at Restaurants
When you go gluten-free, many doctors recommend that you avoid eating out for several months to be sure you don't accidentally ingest gluten. This will also allow you time to become comfortable with the diet and confident about explaining it when you do start eating out again.
Anna Sobaski, who travels frequently promoting her line of gluten-free bread mixes (www.glutenevolution.com), offered these pointers for eating in restaurants. Her biggest tip: Do your homework in advance so you can sit down to enjoy your meal without worry.
Become an Advocate
Talk to the chefs, owners, and waiters of your favorite restaurants about your dietary restrictions to explain the seriousness of this issue. If you're met with a vague or confused response, ask to talk with the chef or manager. Explain which foods you can't eat and make sure the kitchen will avoid cross-contamination. If you are not satisfied with the response, choose another restaurant.
When you're choosing a restaurant, notice the size and breadth of the menu. If it's phonebook-sized and full of every type of food under the sun, chances are that processed ingredients are used and dishes are assembled in advance—not a good choice. Look for a short menu with a focus on fresh ingredients.
Ask the Right Questions
Soups and sauces are often thickened with flour, so always ask what thickeners are used. When ordering proteins such as fish and chicken, ask about coating and breading. For fried foods, ask if the fryer has been used for foods coated in wheat. Ask about the ingredients in marinades and rubs—surprising ingredients, such as soy sauce, can contain wheat. Keep in mind that heat doesn't destroy gluten, so ask if the grill can be cleaned before your food is cooked if it has been used for foods that contain gluten. Don't be afraid to ask for alternate preparations: For example, can the chef bake a piece of fish instead of frying it? At Asian restaurants, is wheat-free tamari available in place of soy sauce?
Order Dining Cards
Available in many languages, these allow you to communicate dietary needs through a language barrier and make it clear that this is a serious condition, not a flexible "dining preference." The donation-based site www.celiactravel.com offers cards in a wide range of languages.
Join a Support Group
To learn about good eating spots in your area and to gain the confidence to become an advocate, get involved with a support group. The Web site www.celiac.com has a list of support groups all over the world.