Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gluten Free Perfection

The world of Gluten Free is harsh. Individual levels of sensitivity to gluten vary, but the general rule if you are a celiac is “none is good” and more than that, very questionable.
At first, I felt overwhelmed by all the new things I’d need to learn to be able to cook for our newly diagnosed celiac son.  After I read a bit, given that I am a regular home cook, I thought I was up to the challenge.  I knew I could simplify my cooking and ingredients to comply with gluten free needs. What if I just cook chicken, pork or fish?  I can add gluten free sides and some healthy vegies.  But then I ran up against….THE INGREDIENT LIST. (Dramatic organ music here.)
Turns out things are not so easy.  Once you figure out some of the easy stuff, like that whey is actually a milk product (as in Little Miss Muffet’s curds and whey,) you start to realize how many ingredients you really don’t understand or recognize. And what is “soy lecithin” or “artificial flavoring” anyway????
Every site or posting I have read says we must always read the ingredient list.  This recommendation is easy to understand because product development can change any time, so yes, READ THE LABEL! Even if a list somewhere tells you it is safe.  Read the label. But even before you can understand the label, you may need to do some research on the crazy, ubiquitous ingredients you find.  Here are some of the challenges we’ve run up against so far in our short 4 weeks of coming to terms with my son’s Celiac disease (and anyone chime in here if I am wrong and keep reading those labels!):
Challenging ingredients:
MSG – even though that translates into Monosodium Glutamate, when I asked the blogs, I learned from smarter posters than I that “glutamate” has no relation to gluten. This ingredient seems to be okay.
Soy – Soy beans (edamame)  and oil are okay.  Even soy lecithin and other derivatives are okay…what is NOT okay is soy sauce.  You know, the bottled stuff that’s everywhere.  The stuff we love to shake on sushi or that’s an ingredient you get in most Asian cooking. Soy sauce is bad because it is typically, but not always, fermented with wheat.  Who knew? Soy sauce is in LOTS of products, like salad dressings and some bbq sauces.  The good news is that San-J and Kikkoman have a gluten free soy sauce on the market. They even sell it in take-out size packets if you need it. So you can continue to use the GF version at home, at least.
Barley – This is my most elusive ingredient.  While there is mandated reporting on the known allergens like wheat, egg, soy and dairy, barley is far enough down on the list to miss the mandate.  And weirdly, barley is used in lots of flavorings. Malt vinegar, for example. So, if you have a product with “natural” flavorings and they are derived from barley, they may not cycle up to the level of mandated reporting. You still need to be concerned. Read your ingredients!  And question what you don’t know. One major food company, Sara Lee, told me they never hide gluten containing ingredients in flavorings or spices.  Good to know and, yes, I am keeping a list of these phone calls. I’d never remember all this without taking notes.
“Doesn’t contain gluten ingredients “–  This is a response I got from another major manufacturer. That isn’t quite what I was looking for. What does this mean??  This sounds a little too simple and seems to avoid the issue. Can’t we just say Gluten Free? Is someone hedging bets about how products are manufactured?  I need to know gluten free…not just non-gluten including ingredients.  So, for anyone new to this stuff, cross contamination is quite an issue. 
Other stumpers include maltodextrin, caramel coloring and "wheat-free."  There’s a lot of info on the web about these ingredients.  I encourage you to start learning if you want to consider being gluten free.
So, in our newly gluten free house, we are struggling for that elusive gluten free perfection.  To help along the way, we have adopted two mottos:
Keep it simple. - Grilled meat, steamed vegies and a starch like corn, potatoes or rice always work. When the ingredient list gets long or confusing, it’s just possible you need to put that item back on the shelf or at least do some research.  It’s sad to buy something only to throw it away. Sadder still to unintentionally glutenize.
If in doubt, don’t. – This seems a prudent approach. We have plenty of time to continue to learn about the details of being gluten free, but it’s a shame to defeat so much hard effort to stay GF by eating something questionable.
Fumbling Mom Product of the Day (in addition to GF Soy Sauce)
Glutino GF Chocolate covered Pretzels
Kid Rating            8 (He ate most of the bag during a basketball game!)
Mom Rating       10 – No compromise here! Love that salty, sweet combo.

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