Nowadays, most of us know at least one person who is gluten-free.
The reasons for making this dietary choice are wide-ranging. For the estimated 1 in 133 Americans who have celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestines, going completely gluten-free is the first step toward preventing serious damage to their bodies.
Others with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), a multi-faceted diagnosis that has met with its fair share of controversy, limit their intake to prevent uncomfortable digestive symptoms. And even more go gluten-free simply because they find limiting their wheat-intake makes them feel better overall — whether that has to do with their body’s ability to digest these proteins, or with the fact that limiting wheat, barley, and rye products often results in the consumption of fewer processed foods.
Regardless of the reason, this trend is growing — and growing fast. According to Packaged Facts, a leading market research publisher, sales of gluten-free products increased by approximately 34 percent every year between 2009 and 2014 — and will reach $2.3 billion, a 140 percent increase over 2014, by 2019.
So how do you accommodate the millions who are going gluten-free? Unfortunately, just cutting wheat out of your food isn’t enough — but there are plenty of delicious alternatives that might make you consider getting on the gluten-free bandwagon yourself.
What It Means to Be Gluten-Free
It’s easy to overlook how many foods — especially those that are commercially available — contain gluten proteins, making the transition to a fully, or even partially, gluten-free menu challenging.
This process is made even more difficult when you consider that many foods that seem gluten-free at first glance may actually contain gluten products, including soy sauce, certain types of broth, and malt. Even oats, which are a naturally gluten-free food, are often contaminated during commercial growing, harvesting, and processing operations, and therefore may not be safe for people with gluten intolerance.
Starchy fibers, especially those from wheat, have a tendency to float, stick, and otherwise travel throughout spaces. And given that the Food and Drug Administration standard for a “gluten-free” product is one that contains less than 20 gluten parts per million, something as simple as these floating fibers may actually prevent a commercial product from achieving true gluten-free status. Despite this difficulty, plenty of brands are distributing an increasing number of completely gluten-free products, from bread to cake and beyond.
Aside from the increasing number of products commercially available, there are plenty of foods that are naturally gluten-free. Most fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free, as well as many cheeses; oils; nuts and seeds; and condiments such as mustard, horseradish, and salsa.
There are even a wide variety of naturally gluten-free starches and flours to choose from, including arrowroot, buckwheat, quinoa, and rice. Just be careful with starches. These items are more likely to be processed in facilities that also handle wheat, barley, and rye, and should be verified as gluten-free before use.
Making Gluten-Free Foods
Unfortunately, creating a gluten-free dish isn’t as simple as just replacing the traditional flour in your recipe with one of these wheat-free alternatives. Gluten-containing and gluten-free flours have very different tastes and textures, and therefore require different proportions of sugars, liquids, flavorings, and other cooking ingredients. But that doesn’t mean gluten-free cooking is more difficult — or less delicious. In fact, once you acquaint yourself with what can and cannot be included, you can create recipes that have the same craveability and appeal as the original dish.
The first step is to acquaint yourself with which items are absolutely forbidden. Wheat is an obvious product to avoid, but look for other ingredients may indicate the presence of gluten, including dextrin, fermented grain extract, hydrolysate, caramel color, and many others.
As more Americans choose a gluten-free lifestyle, information about these hidden starches is becoming easier to locate than ever. If you’re looking to label any dish as completely gluten-free, however, the best bet is to speak with a doctor or dietician in your area who can help you ensure what you’re serving truly is safe for those with gluten intolerance. Then, to avoid any miscommunication, try printing out a list of ingredients that contain gluten and post them around food-prep areas as a reminder of what to look for, and make a point of training anyone who will be preparing food in how to examine ingredient lists for these hidden starches.
You certainly can build a gluten-free menu with prepackaged products, but the easiest method for going gluten free is still to start with fresh ingredients from vendors you trust and prepare as much as possible yourself (a practice that also has the benefit of increasing the sustainability of your kitchen).
When making your own pasta, for example, using a vegetable such as zucchini instead of the traditional starch creates a unique and delicious alternative to pair with sauce — and one that capitalizes on both the gluten-free and healthy eating trends that are impacting the restaurant industry today. Or, if you’d like to keep this traditional comfort food relatively unchanged on the menu, you can replace your wheat-based flour with a rice, corn, or sorghum blend with excellent results. Even something as simple as replacing the pasta in your dishes with quinoa or rice can make a big difference when it comes to going gluten-free, and still appeals to the health-conscious eaters of the world.
And if you don’t want to give up the traditional flour-containing favorites — cakes, pies, brownies, and even some ice cream, we’re talking about you! — recipes replacing traditional flour with tasty coconut, rice, and other variations are everywhere, meaning you won’t have to take any fan favorites off the menu.
Want to learn about other trends that are changing the way we eat? Check out our overview of what’s hot, and what’s not, this year.
This article does NOT provide medical advice. For medical advice and medical treatment, always contact your licensed medical providers. Do not substitute information or content on this website for medical advice and medical treatment from health care professionals.