Gluten-free: Not just for celiacs

The popularity of gluten-free foods reflects a trend toward avoiding gluten, even for people who do not have Celiac Sprue.

The popularity of gluten-free foods reflects a trend toward avoiding gluten, even for people who do not have Celiac Sprue.

by Marianne Crafts-Brandner — 

Pancakes made without wheat? Quinoa croquettes? A hamburger bun made from rice flour? Adzuki bean brownies? Question: Who would choose such unusual foods? Answer: Someone who is trying to eat a gluten-free diet.

In case you have not been in a health food store recently, “wheat-free/gluten-free” is a new way to eat. You will see labels for wheat-free/gluten-free breads, crackers, pancake and bread mixes, pizzas, and even cookies made without wheat or other gluten-grains. You will find familiar pasta shapes made from alternative flours, such as rice, corn or potato.

If you are ready for something more exotic than white or brown rice, you can experiment with exciting new grains such as sweet brown rice, Thai black sweet rice, Chinese red rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet, buckwheat and teff.

Why would anyone choose to give up their favorite pizza, Wheaties or Wonder Bread sandwiches? Some people have had to wean themselves from wheat and other gluten-containing grains for health reasons. This is the case for those with celiac disease, or Celiac Sprue, a potentially life-threatening illness.

Celiac disease is a condition involving intolerance to gluten, a protein found in common grains, including wheat, rye, barley and oats. It is also present in less commonly known grains such as triticale, spelt and kamut. Eating offending foods can cause cramping, bloating and diarrhea. Gluten-intolerant people, or celiacs, experience a gradual weakening of their intestinal wall, which may prevent them from absorbing nutrients from the food they eat. Malabsorption can eventually lead to serious health conditions, including iron deficiency, malnutrition and osteopenia (the stage preceding osteoporosis).

Avoiding gluten-containing grains sounds easy enough, and in many respects it is. At breakfast, you could replace Wheaties, Cheerios and other wheat- or oat-based cold cereals with cereals made from rice, corn or amaranth. But you will have to read labels carefully to avoid barley, since many cereals contain barley malt, a common sweetener. To more easily identify gluten-free cereals, look for labels that clearly say “gluten-free.”

If you want a sandwich for lunch or dinner, replace your usual bread with gluten-free bread made from rice flour. Read labels carefully, though; wheat-free bread may contain wheat substitutes such as spelt and kamut. You also may be able to find gluten-free tortillas in health food stores. These can stand in for bread at any meal. You can wrap up an omelet for a quick breakfast to go. Use gluten-free tortillas to replace wheat buns, flour tortillas and chapattis.

Preparing a gluten-free casserole using pre-made sauces and gravies will be a little more challenging. The easy part about reading food labels is looking for the words gluten-free. The hard part is detecting hidden sources of gluten. Processed foods often contain ingredients derived from wheat or barley that are not apparent from perusing the label. For example, when a label says, “modified food starch,” that may indicate the presence of corn, but it could also mean wheat. Wheat often appears even in products you would not expect to contain the grain, such as soy sauce. Some companies sell wheat-free alternatives, such as Tamari soy sauce.

The popularity of gluten-free foods reflects a trend toward avoiding gluten, even for people who do not have Celiac Sprue. A growing number of health-conscious individuals are not only choosing gluten-free foods at the market, but also opting to prepare them at home. Their choice may arise from a desire for new and exciting foods, or they may have made a lifestyle change to cope with chronic health conditions such as sinus congestion, arthritis or irritable bowel syndrome. When cooking from scratch, many people experience additional benefits by avoiding all processed and refined foods, dairy products, hydrogenated fats and sugar. Removing gluten may be the beginning of a healthier diet.

In order to truly benefit from this new eating style, choose unprocessed, whole gluten-free grains; increase your daily servings of vegetables and fruits; use minimal amounts of unrefined sweeteners; and switch to more healthful fats such as unrefined, cold-pressed oils, unsweetened and unhydrogenated nut and seed butters, and raw nuts and seeds.

People who follow these dietary practices usually experience a dramatic improvement in their health. They may lose weight, feel more energetic and think more clearly. Others experience lower cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and blood pressure. Allergies, digestive difficulties and arthritic pains may improve or disappear.

According to Jordan S. Rubin, N.M.D., and Joseph Brasco, M.D., co-authors of the book, Restoring Your Digestive Health, anyone experiencing a chronic health problem, especially a chronic gastrointestinal disorder, should try a gluten-free diet. You may be in for a pleasant surprise. Do not think of it as giving up all your favorite foods. View it as regaining your most precious possession, your health. In addition, you will discover many amazing and delicious new foods.

Gluten grains to avoid include wheat; barley, including barley malt, which is found in many processed foods; rye; oats, not a true gluten grain but a potential problem because it often is grown in or near wheat fields; spelt, an ancient grain in the wheat family; and kamut, an ancient nonhybrid variety of wheat. For a comprehensive list of hidden sources of gluten see


Marianne Crafts-Brandner has shared management duties at an all-volunteer food co-op, created recipes for gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free meals, was a special education teacher and is a certified nutritionist. 

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 24, Number 5, October/November 2005

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