Here are the 7 gluten-free basics to get you started….

1. What actually is gluten? I hear about it all the time and I have no idea!

Gluten is a natural forming protein found in grains. It is specifically found in wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Millet and corn are also showing up in tests as containing high levels of gluten (damn those tasty corn chips!).

Gluten can also be hidden in pre-prepared foods like soups, sauces, marinades, dairy products, and tinned goods. This is because derivatives of wheat are used as a cheap way to thicken food. Instead of boiling those tomatoes to make a rich, thick sauce, just throw in a bit of gluten and it’ll thicken up nice and good!

2. What’s the difference between gluten intolerant and celiac disease? I’m confused!

Yes, you’re not alone. You and the majority of the population are pretty confused about the difference.

If you’re ‘gluten intolerant’ that means you have an inability to tolerate gluten. Your symptoms may or may not be severe and you can get a range of reactions (varying in intensity) when ingesting gluten. You may not even be aware you are gluten intolerant.

If you’re diagnosed as ‘celiac’ then you have an allergic reaction to gluten and your immune system will click in (it’s basically saying “out with you damn gluten!”). Your symptoms will happen within 30 minutes to 3 hours of ingesting gluten. Being celiac will mean your symptoms will be a lot more dramatic and you definitely need medical guidance. You will definitely be aware something is dramatically wrong.

3. Someone told me I might be sensitive to gluten. How can I tell?

Well the list of symptoms is very broad but some of the major ones include digestive problems, diarrhea/constipation, weight gain/loss (unfortunately I suffer more from the gain!!), lung problems such as asthma, headaches, joint problems, depression, inability to concentrate, and fatigue. Different people respond differently. Of course these things can also be symbolic of many other physical problems, so do check with your doctor.

You can also try taking gluten out, wait a couple of weeks, then attempt to eat something with gluten in it. The symptoms can return within a couple of hours.

4. Should I care if I’m reacting to gluten? It all seems a bit hard!

Reacting to gluten can lead to major health problems, including diseases such as cancer, asthma, thyroid, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chron’s disease. If you keep consuming gluten it’s basically going to affect the tissue in your body and make you sick. It’s not sounding pretty is it?

So in short, yes you should care! If you want to maintain your long-term health and are experiencing symptoms, go see a doctor and share your concerns.

5. Help!! I’ve just been diagnosed and need to go gluten-free. I just don’t know what to eat now!

The simplest gluten-free diet is meat (unprocessed), fish, eggs, vegetables and fruit. You can add in some nuts (as long as they’re not flavoured) and legumes like chickpeas and lentils. That’s pretty easy isn’t it? Just be sure you have your own chopping board and cooking implements. Use scrummy taste sensations like fresh herbs (or dried), spices, tamari (that’s wheat-free soya sauce), tahini (that’s made from sesame seeds and tastes a bit peanutty), rosewater, a dash of nice oil and so on to spice up your meals. Try out some ways to prepare raw food.

Here’s an simple and comprehensive list of foods to avoid:

Don’t be scared. Get creative! Fresh is always best. Use this as an opportunity to extend your diet and add some exciting new delights to your culinary repertoire.

6. How do I find ‘hidden’ gluten in food? It seems a bit confusing!

The first thing I recommend you do is learn how to read food labels (that’s the list of contents you’ll find on the back of prepared foods). My best advice is if in doubt about an ingredient, consider it ‘persona non grata’ (that’s means put the packet down gently and step away slowly….).

Here are some hidden ingredients that you may not realise contain gluten and you’ll need to avoid them. If in DOUBT, leave it OUT:

Thickners (anything numbered 1400-1450)MaltodextrinSoya sauceVinegar (unless it says white, balsamic or cider)Cornstarch.

7. This whole gluten intolerance thing seems like a fad! How come everyone seems to have suddenly started becoming gluten-free?

Ok I’m going to step out on a limb here but after 8 years I’m sensing a pattern. My belief is that our Western diets are FILLED with gluten in recent years. From our breakfast cereals, to our high bread consumption (having toast for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch?), the increase in our consumption of pasta and noodles, to the amount of museli bars and muffins we consume, that’s just the start! Add into the mix the amount of processed and flavoured food we eat, and you’d be hard-pushed to escape gluten in anything you eat if you’re not monitoring your diet.

I think everyone would benefit from lessening their level of processed food and getting back to the joy of cooking from scratch. It’s healthier and cheaper!

Rochelle Stewart-Allen
My Kitchen Capers