Gluten Free{dom}

May 27, 2014 · 38 comments

Bread Crust A few months ago, I published a piece in the New York Times about where I stand on the gluten free issue, such as it is; I call it an issue because it has become, startlingly, just that—an issue. Like the issue of body art or nose piercing. Like it’s just an annoying way of eating that some self-important people claim to be faced with on a day-to-day basis, which sets them apart from the rest of the universe. Like they’re oh so special, or perhaps weren’t special enough in their mother’s eyes and the result is that now the rest of us have to try not to stare at their big, black ear lobe plugs while we’re engaged in polite conversation over hors d’oeuvres and dry martinis in the south parlor.

As my late great dispassionate Aunt Gertrude once said to me, Poor them.

The issue as written about by me and the other writers elicited responses all over the spectrum; there were naysayers and yaysayers, and some folks who talked about the very real problems surrounding bandwagons and trend, and the inevitable compassionless boors who honestly seem to believe that people who suffer from celiac disease and varying levels of intolerance are just faking it, as if a lifetime of bloating, diarrhea, fever, chills, vomiting, intestinal pain, and a litany of other less-than-delightful afflictions is something one might want to drum up at will, assuming one could. You know, just like that nagging little head shake that so many people with Parkinson’s use to their advantage.

This particular gluten free issue is one that is important to me on a personal level: I come from a very long line of family members who have suffered through the generations from what one of my cousins euphemistically calls tummy troubles which run the gamut from ordinary, self-diagnosed lactose intolerance (which precludes drinking milk but, in some cases, not eating cheese), to deadly fish/beef/nut allergies, to my dear late dad’s lifetime of discomfort: as a nineteen-year-old night fighter pilot in the wartime Pacific, he once had no choice but to put his plane down in a leper colony on the-then nearly uninhabitable island of Molokai less than an hour after eating a Parker House roll at his officer’s club. His apparent delusion and obvious desire to be different eventually resulted in not one, but two colostomies, five years apart. (If only he had quit his bellyachin’ and just ate what everyone else did, he clearly would have been fine.)

In the last year, I made the discovery that, generally speaking, I feel better if I eat either no gluten at all, or very infrequently and judiciously (sliced sandwich bread no; high quality, 3-ingredient bread, yes, but not every day and sometimes not even every week).  I apparently have no problem with long-fermented doughs assuming I haven’t been gorging on their dreck-laden counterparts in the days prior. It’s not particularly a big deal; I don’t go near pizza if I’m not feeling well, nor do I expect my local pizzeria to accommodate me and then complain if they won’t, because pizzerias are to gluten what coals are to Newcastle. I mean, would someone with a fish allergy go to Arthur Treacher’s, and then complain about the fact that there was nothing for him to eat? There’s plenty for me to eat on the days when I’m avoiding gluten, just as there is on days when I’m not: what I choose to eat and when and where and how isn’t anyone’s problem but mine, and frankly, it shouldn’t be. One thing is for sure, though, either way: I will never starve. Because, for me, gluten free eating is not about deprivation; it’s about making the absolute most of the bounty — the vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, poultry, non-glutenous grains — that I know I’m lucky enough to have access to. (Which begs the question: what about those who aren’t as lucky?) Thanks to my former author and now-friend, Erin Scott of Yummy Supper, for teaching me this lesson.

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I’ve just come from two weeks in Europe — a week each in Paris and London — and after shopping for several days at a great Monoprix in the 5th, and spending my time in London walking from one end of the city to the other, I came across only one overtly gluten-free business (although I know there are more): Romeo’s Bakery in Islington. Beyond that, people who are gluten sensitive seem to be dealing with it fine across the pond (assuming they are doing their own cooking and not trying to order a gluten free mille feuille at Taillevent) — they don’t eat bread or pasta or glutinous grains, and are surrounded by some of the most stunning vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, fish, cheese, and charcuterie I’ve seen, anywhere. Of all the meals I had out when I was away, the majority of them were naturally gluten free (the steak at Hawksmoor; the Branzino carpaccio at River Cafe; the saucisse d’Auvergne at Le Timbre); I didn’t ask for a gluten free menu nor did I mention that I wanted to eat gluten free. I just ordered appropriately. Then again, I’m also not a Celiac.

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All of this said, there is a significant problem here at home — one that no one seems to be talking about — surrounding gluten free foods and the people that love them (G.F.F.A.T.P.T.L.T.), and it is actually not one of trendiness, or availability, or even the supposedly implied imperiousness of gluten free-ers. Instead, it’s the fact that while the naysayers and yaysayers have been battling it out loudly in public — in newspapers, on blogs, in magazines — it’s the processed food manufacturing Collossus who is having the last laugh, as it always seems to: in response to the needs of a growing gluten free population, virtually every supermarket in America has seen mind-boggling, exponential growth in their packaged gluten free food aisles: suddenly, as if out of nowhere, gluten free cookies, cakes, crackers, mixes abound. This is not just anecdotal: in an article in Time.com, according to the market research company, Packaged Facts, the gluten free market in the United States last year was $4.2 billion, and is predicted to grow to $6.6 billion by 2017. Which is a lot of dough.

To be fair, not all packaged gluten free foods are the same; some are produced under very strict, high quality control — Bob’s Red Mill, Canyon Bakehouse, and Jovial being three of the many manufacturers whose products are stellar — and some are not. And the ones that are not do for gluten free eaters what Chiffon Margarine did for cardiac patients (remember Chiffon Margarine — it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature and all that — which was touted as a heart-healthy buttery spread but was actually a by-product of hydrogenated cottonseed oil developed by Houston-based cotton trading magnates): you get a pricey, completely gluten free product that’s hyper-processed and laden with chemicals, industrial fillers, stabilizers and binding agents. Which, in my estimation, not only makes it precarious; it makes it no longer food.

It matters not a drop if you’re an ethical vegan, a medical vegetarian, or gluten free, or if you’re allergic to nuts, fish, onions, or beef. It doesn’t matter if you exist on a steady diet of burgers and fries, can’t eat eggs, or are a Jain. It doesn’t matter if gluten free people drive you insane or they don’t. If it’s not food — real food, devoid of fillers and chemicals, and mechanically manipulated to taste or act like something that it isn’t — don’t eat it. Make sure your children and your senior citizen parents and the less fortunate around you aren’t being fed it. Because it’s not real. And feeding people anything that’s not real strikes me — in all its Soylent Green splendor — as wildly deceptive on the one hand, and insanely dangerous on the other.

So regardless of whether you’re a yaysayer or a naysayer — if you live somewhere on the gluten free continuum, as I do, or you know someone who does (and you likely do) — the conversation should not be focused on who is really a Celiac, or who is really sensitive, or who is lying for some reason (why would someone lie about the way they need to eat?), and how completely annoyed you get listening to gluten free eaters tediously yammer on about their condition: it should be focused on issues of food quality — gluten free, or not. It should be focused on truth-telling (come on, General Mills: jacking up the price of Muir Glen tomatoes because they’re gluten free is a teeny bit cruel and disingenuous, don’t you think? ALL tomatoes are gluten free.), and refusing to give up control of the food that you ingest to industrial producers who really — really — have absolutely no interest in your health, be you gluten free or not.

The answer, instead, is to buy the freshest food you can, assuming you don’t live in a food desert (another disgrace). Eat seasonally. Shop at a farmer’s market or join a CSA. Plant a small vegetable garden. Roast a chicken. Make a pot of soup. Marry your local charcuterie to your local cheese. Make enough salad dressing for the week. Have your neighbors in. Be an active part of your food community, gluten free or not. Feed each other. Learn to cook instead of opening a can/package/box or calling in for takeout. Whether you’re gluten free or you aren’t, food is health and it’s life: Yours, mine, and ours.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 erin {yummysupper} May 27, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Yes! Yes! Yes!

2 laura May 27, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Why people feel compelled to bitchy about how someone else is eating I dunno. Lovely post.

3 Deborah Madison May 27, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Brava Elissa!

4 Elissa May 27, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Laura, I dunno either. Thank you. x

5 Elissa May 27, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Thanks Erin—xxx

6 heidi May 27, 2014 at 6:14 pm

what a great article!I think we should all have some respect for those who have problems regarding food. that said, I completely agree that the crap that is most of the food many people buy is disgusting.when i am at the market and see how people load up their carts with boxes of stuff that vaguely resembles food it makes me sad. when they have small children it makes me sad and mad. i can’t help but feel that some of the illnesses that are around are because of the choices we make. those people who do have problems should also learn , like you, to make good choices and not make it someone else’s job to make sure there is food on the menu that they can eat.having worked in restaurants for years, i saw lots of this kind of thing way before the gluten crisis. and i think it’s almost amusing that there are suddenly all kinds of things that are marked gluten-free when it should be obvious.i have some friends that any time they are coming for dinner, i need to ask them what they are eating now as it changes all the time.the last line in your article sums it all up. thank you

7 Wendy Read May 27, 2014 at 6:28 pm

So well written, I love you. I too have made a change in eliminating gluten as I was having so many digestive issues and I feel better and my arthritis feels better which I didn’t even realize could be managed better by changing my diet. I appreciate your words and would love to have a meal with you some day 🙂

8 Elissa May 27, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Thank you Wendy Read– x

9 David Mahler May 27, 2014 at 7:32 pm

Yes. Amazingly and astonishingly, but not alarmingly the solution is to pay attention to what you eat and where it comes from; to practice restraint in enjoying your “bad” food habits; and to cook and eat with love. Imagine that.
Great piece, thank you.

10 Kathleen May 27, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Amen.

11 sonya May 27, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Yay, just yay! To hear you tell it, it’s all so succinct and clear cut…and obvious. Thanx!

12 Amy May 27, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Wonderful article…honestly written. Thank you!

13 Jan May 27, 2014 at 10:40 pm

It’s been almost a year since I read the book Wheat Belly, and decided on a whim to delete wheat from my diet. I was on a road trip in the south. I couldn’t help myself. I was picking up a couple of fried lemon pies at every one pump gas & grocery store in South Louisiana. I needed a reprieve from fried, breaded, wheat infested food for at least a week. That’s when I downloaded Wheat Belly. What I discovered immediately without wheat my ‘inner workings’ were more stable. I could actually eat a meal without running to the bathroom almost instantly. I took heed. After a bit of research and awareness, I’ve come to realize that wheat or gluten is not the enemy, it is the KIND of wheat(GMO) we grow in America. It is the way we process our wheat. Recently a new bread bakery opened in Denver. I hated to ask but had to, do you make G-F loaves? They instantly responded with, ‘NO. We use wheat flour similar to the wheat grown & processed in Europe.’ And added, “Our customers say they can eat our bread, same as they can eat the bread in Europe.” What’s wrong with USA wheat? Does Monsanto ring a bell? I do not believe any thing will change until we as a nation refuse to buy processed bread. Living a G-F life is a bitch. But like you said, learn to eat more vegetables, avoid bread, wheat noodles. If you have bad effects from eating wheat, keep quiet, eat what you can, and refuse the pizza.

14 Alejandro Canales May 28, 2014 at 12:56 am

Very good article..thanks

15 Rachel May 28, 2014 at 8:04 am

Couldn’t agree more with you about the BIG FOOD production and marketing of GF products. I warn my students to ALWAYS READ LABELS and decide for themselves “is this real food?” The shorter the ingredient list the better! Currently love SAMI’s Bakery GF bread for it’s tiny ingredient list. Flax seed, millet, Baking Soda, rice flour, done. Love reading your posts.

16 Elissa May 28, 2014 at 9:28 am

Thank you Rachel-

17 Margit Van Schaick May 28, 2014 at 9:55 am

Oh, Elissa, you truly get right to the heart of the matter!

18 Shadi May 28, 2014 at 10:57 am

Excellent. You have covered it all – how the food industry is fooling the society at large and making profit not caring what happens to us in the least bit. Once something becomes trendy then food industry starts producing it with the least cost for the industry but selling it high price to the masses thus, boom goes their profit.

You are so right about making our own food not depending so much on canned and ready made foods that contain so much chemicals and preservatives to make the shelf life longer but our lives shorter.

Elissa, have you seen the film ‘Fed Up’ I hope you will write about it and how sugar is killing us softly. Thank you for all the great write ups you do.

19 Elissa May 28, 2014 at 10:58 am

Thank you Shadi x

20 Erin Smith May 28, 2014 at 3:55 pm

“what I choose to eat and when and where and how isn’t anyone’s problem but mine, and frankly, it shouldn’t be.”

YES!!

What an excellent post. Thank you so much for highlighting that your food is your business. As a Celiac, I have been told that I am not eating right, that I should eat oats even though I have a problem, blah blah blah. It’s my body, my celiac, my food choices!

Thank you!

21 Gail {A Healthy Hunger} May 28, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Here Here!!! Brava Brava!!!!

22 Elissa May 28, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Thank you!

23 Elissa May 28, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Thanks Erin–

24 Wendy May 28, 2014 at 10:11 pm

As my Grandmother would have said “from your mouth to God’s ear” or just, “from your mouth….”

25 stuart itter May 29, 2014 at 9:59 am

I do not follow the press on wheat and dairy issues. The big question is why it occurring among so many people. In addition to you, I know three other people that have suddenly discovered they have it-one has trouble with both wheat and dairy. All of them are women. Sure science is raising questions about the cause; it will be interesting to see what they find.

I also have another thought. I wonder if a more underlying problem that goes undetected causes the problems which is then aggravated by wheat and dairy. I say this because I was have a rough time with digestive issues that was getting worse. Finally, doctors discovered an intestinal parasite. Had a Latin name. For a long time, doctors were not confident that it could even cause problems. (It turns out that this doubt came from some American doctors. It was not doubted in Europe. Now it is agreed that it causes problems.) These obscure parasites come from microspopic fecal matter-even on a blade of grass, from farms etc. This is the age of the farmer’s market. Eggs are cleaned with a quick rinse. The enlightened handle all kinds of produce at them. All I know is that after medication for two weeks, my whole digestive process was drastically improved, restored to what it was when I was a young man. Well anyway, just a thought.

26 Pamela Duran May 30, 2014 at 5:02 pm

I read Wheat Belly, eliminated gluten from my diet, and lost 30 pounds in four months. My husband lost 25. That was three years ago.
Still at our low weight. We occasionally eat bread, or hamburger buns or pasta, but not all the time. We feel much better, no indigestion.

27 Ashley June 1, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Well said! Thank you for posting!

28 Linda June 3, 2014 at 6:56 pm

I just spent half a month in Prague. The fresh baked breads and pastries were beautiful, and smelled so good. A friend finally took me to Globus for some GF bread and cookies, so I wouldn’t feel so deprived. I try not to eat meat, but had a few steaks and some duck while I was there, because not every restaurant had plain grilled fish. Most of the Czech sauces are made with flour. Thankfully, before I went I printed out several messages in Czech from the Czech celiac organization, so I did not get sick a single time. But I also ate a lot of cheese and potatoes. I didn’t get to chose the restaurant very often, so I had to make do. “Salads” were usually chopped tomatoes, red peppers and cucumbers, which got old quickly. Was it worth it? Oh, my yes! The architecture and the people were amazing. But I hope if I ever go back that we can rent an apartment and I can cook for myself.

29 Carol Carlson June 4, 2014 at 11:03 am

Thank you, Elissa, for this call to the truth. Amen, sister!

30 Melissa June 28, 2014 at 10:04 am

Elissa — great article but I think there are still a few things are gluten that the general public needs to learn. I am gluten free due to Celiac Disease that was diagnosed last year. My symptoms were rather silent so I didn’t realize that my intestines were being damaged by the foods I ate. As a result I am now in the early stages of Osteoporosis in my 40s and was significantly iron deficient since my body was not absobing any nutrients from my foods.

Avoiding gluten is not as simple as not eating bread and pasta. It is hidden in almost everything we eat in our American food culture. And even if its not in the ingredients list it may have been in the ingredients of the last thing that was processed on that line. So, if manufacturing facilities are not vigilant about cleaning between product runs the gluten may be getting into foods that are logically gluten free – like Muir Glen tomatoes. I will gladly pay a little bit more for a product that the manufacturer states is gluten free just because that tells me that they are aware of the problem and are trying to deal with it.

However, that said there are many items out there that are labelled gluten free and are not. I recently had an issue with some vitamins that were labelled gluten free but clearly were not! As soon as I started taking them my symptoms came on and as soon as I quit taking them the symptoms went away.

All this said I loved your article. Your comments about real foods is spot on. Since going gluten free I have started cooking more and seeking out more local and healthly options. The real solution is reading labels, cooking fresh and shopping local where you can.

31 Elissa June 28, 2014 at 10:07 am

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response Melissa—!

32 Mary July 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Thank you for your lucid insights into the ‘gluten issue’. Although I have been gluten free for many years, I too long ago decided not to make a fuss (there weren’t many alternatives a decade ago) and have always found something delicious I could eat, no matter where I found myself. I agree with you that what I choose to ingest is my business, probably not very interesting to anyone else, and that I am in control of where I choose to eat (at least most of the time; I have plenty of family and friends who are fond of the occasional pizza, and most of the GF pizza I have tried is not worth eating-but there is always something suitable in a pizza place). The quality of the food we eat is, as you write, more important than the ‘correctness’ of the food. Hooray for fresh food you cook for yourself!

33 Ginger July 7, 2014 at 8:30 am

I could have written this article. You took the words right out of my mouth. I especially like the conclusion that we should be “refusing to give up control of the food that you ingest to industrial producers who really — really — have absolutely no interest in your health, be you gluten free or not.” That’s how we got where we are. Furthermore, my pet peeve is when one’s condition is blamed on a “psychological” issue; yes emotions can have an impact on one’s digestion, but really if it is recurrent and persistent and it occurs after eating certain foods, wouldn’t it be logical to attribute it to the food one ingested. Thank you for this cogent article on the topic of gluten.

34 Ginger July 7, 2014 at 8:35 am

I have been eating gluten free for several years now after encouragement from not only my dermatologist who suggested it because of eczema breakouts – but also my daughter, who is a nurse – suggested it…so i did and boy am i glad. i feel so much better. less brain fog, less digestive issues (my stomach does not rule my life -i can go places and not worry, i am more likely to make commitments- plans…now i know how it feels to be normal).
A side benefit is that I lost twenty pounds which I needed to do…and feel and look better as a result. I too do not make a fuss; i simply make sensible eating choices…and am enjoying eating sooo much more. My eyes have been opened to the wide range of veggies and fruits and alternative grain choices….i love it. who knew?

35 Maureen July 22, 2014 at 4:01 pm

I really enjoyed this post and shared it with my sister who has been GF for almost 25 years after she was diagnosed with dermatitis herptetiformis. She was all over gluten free before it was common and we all learned it really is not hard to cook for her if we focus on whole foods and cook mostly from scratch–good for us too. She did mention there is a new push for all labeled food products to list the seven major allergens on them so don’t be surprised if it’s not long before those same Muir Glen tomatoes are also labeled “dairy free”, “peanut free”, “tree nut free”, “shellfish free” etc.

36 Denise H August 23, 2014 at 1:08 am

I began eating a gluten free, lactose free, low FODMAP diet in March due to tummy problems. I see some improvement, but because labels do not tell the whole truth, I still struggle. Hoping for more truth in advertising! Unless you cook for yourself, you are at the mercy of others, some of whom do not understand the unpleasant outcomes we have if we eat something we can’t digest.

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