Six years ago, celiac disease and gluten-free diets hit my radar. I was working as a baker for a startup company in south Florida, and the owner had developed a (rather gross) made-without-gluten bagel option. A significant part of my job involved the development of recipes for gluten-free muffins and other menu items. The first hard truth I learned: there is no quick substitute for wheat flour. Gluten-free baking was unlike vegan baking; swapping out Earth Balance for butter and soymilk for cow’s milk was a far cry from concocting the least terrible combination of oat, teff, and brown rice flour.
Despite the pretty low bar at that time, our (barely edible) gluten-free options were popular with certain customers. I was surprised to learn then that, beyond folks with celiac disease, the Autism Research Institute has suggested that a diet free of gluten could be beneficial for folks diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Many parents were thrilled to discover the gluten-free (GF) baked goods we were producing at that time.
Fast forward to 2011: I am working in the Co-op Services department at Willy Street Co-op, fielding an increasing number of product requests for gluten-free options and/or a gluten-free section in our store. “Gluten-free” has that perfect Oprah-effect: a fickle food industry, lots of buzz, tastes coming and going. I continued to assume that GF eating was another relatively minor food trend until a co-worker told me how much better she felt when she stopped eating gluten. It was bizarre to actually know someone (without a particular diagnosis or recommendation from a doctor) who was endorsing this strange (to me) diet.
As I continued to lead store tours and bulk aisle tours, I began to meet more Owners who were trying to eliminate gluten. This challenged me to keep up with my own research on it, pushed me to consider the possibility that it was not a fad, and made me aware of what products in our stores did and did not contain gluten. (Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, kamut, and spelt. When used in flours, it is responsible for the elasticity of breads and baked goods.)
Eventually, I decided to give GF eating a try, knowing it would wreak havoc on some of my habits. After all, isn’t buttered toast the ultimate and least expensive dinner/lunch/breakfast/snack in all of our lives? Honestly, I tried it simply to see if I could do it, maybe for a month. Yet since then, I have remained committed to mostly or entirely GF eating habits. My occasional exceptions over the last year and a half have generally taken the delicious forms of flour tortillas, beer, a sweet treat, pizza.
Honestly, my eating habits/dietary choices don’t necessarily help me make friends. I don’t eat meat either, nor do I eat any fun foods like your homemade banana bread or birthday cake. Yet somehow, it is easier to choose the certain social repercussions and the disciplined avoidance of favorite foods because I feel so much better. My head feels clear, my body feels lighter, my previously frequent headaches and migraines have been reduced to very occasional. I am a lot more aware of and sensitive to my body overall.
My story is not unique. In fact, many Co-op staff members have their own. Thane Wienandt shares his: “After trying a vegetarian and a vegan diet, I was still feeling lethargic and had digestion issues. I went back to eating meat and dairy but decided to try a GF diet for a week to see if I would notice a difference. After a week, I felt so much better. As time went on, I was no longer bloated or tired and spacey all the time.” Maleah Moskoff had dabbled in GF living but more recently jumped in fully: “I became bloated, arthritic, achy, and irritable when I ate processed grains, especially wheat. I decided to experiment with a no-wheat diet and in a matter of two to three days I felt like a new person. When I would have a bite of something with gluten, I would feel the difference and have since decided to go 100% gluten-free. The Co-op has made the transition easy with numerous alternatives to wheat.” Brooke Sutter, along with her parents, are gluten-free and do not eat any flour-based GF products like breads, cookies, pasta, etc. She says, “I’ve struggled with terrible allergies no matter the season for my whole life, and they’ve improved about 90% with my diet change. I also would have stomach pains after eating many meals. I no longer feel pain when I eat. . . My mom and stepdad (in their 50s and 60s) both went gluten-free about a year-and-a-half ago. Each of them improved all of their cholesterol scores and my stepdad even lost 20 pounds that we didn’t even know he needed to lose.” Joe Disch went grain-free (and thus, gluten-free) in 2011 as part of the switch to a Paleo diet, and feels better in many ways. Kate Richards went gluten-free about two-and-a-half years ago: “I had joint pain in my hands and hips which went away very quickly on a gluten-free diet (and comes back to remind me to be more careful anytime I get ‘glutened’). . .You don’t really appreciate how important food is in social activities until you have to start telling people ‘I can’t eat that scrumptious cookie you made for me because I will feel awful if I do.’”
Certainly you’ve heard testimonials like these, and it is likely that you’ve also formed your opinion on this topic as well. According to a recent article on the NPR blog The Salt, approximately one-third of adults in the U.S. are now eating (or trying) GF diets. Yet less than one percent of people have celiac disease. [Note: Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes painful gastrointestinal problems. Avoiding gluten is the only treatment for this disease.] So, why are so many people making the decision to eliminate gluten?
In my own analysis of gluten sensitivity, the overload of wheat in my diet may simply have disrupted my body’s balance. The average U.S. diet contains an enormous amount of gluten- or wheat-based products. From hamburger buns to bagels, pita chips to brownies, seitan (and other vegetarian meat alternatives) to crackers, gluten is almost everywhere. Even when many people start avoiding the obvious sources, the hidden sources (like “natural flavors”) creep in. Thane mentions that “going out to eat can be difficult because gluten is added to many sauces and condiments. . . Eating at a friend or family member’s house can be a challenge.”
TIPS AND TRICKS
For those who have made the decision to eat a GF diet, or who are considering trying one, we have compiled a few suggestions. “I think one of the ‘secrets’ to eating gluten-free (or dairy-free, or whatever-free) successfully is to completely change the way you think about food, eating, and meals in general,” says Ansley Knoch. “While the occasional substitute is a nice treat, playing to the strengths of naturally gluten-free staples (rather than trying to make replicas of their glutinous counterparts) can yield a more delicious, nutritious, and creative diet.” Thane recommends easing into the new dietary choices: “Begin by replacing all wheat products with GF products at home. This way, you won’t be tempted when needing a snack. Do some research about ‘hidden gluten’ in foods online. There are many great resources and lists to learn from. Find someone in your life that is also gluten-free for support. It gets easier once you educate yourself!” Kate Richards thinks it’s best to look for “recipes that never had gluten to begin with (Indian cooking is a great place to start). They are tastier than ‘substitutes’ and often healthier as well.”
As someone who still enjoys sweet treats, I have learned to make variations of desserts by focusing on those that do not prominently feature flour. For cookies and tortes, I tend to use almond flour and oats as alternatives. For a pretty awesome crust substitute, millet cooks pretty quickly and has a sticky texture to work with. I prefer adding herbs and Parmesan cheese and molding it into quiche crusts and pizza (muffin) crusts. Millet is also an inexpensive whole grain and not a processed flour.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GLUTEN-FREE SECTION?
Numerous Owners have inquired about our lack of specifically isolated GF sections at Willy East and Willy West. The short answer is: there are many gluten-free products in the store, too many to put in one section. More and more products are being labeled “gluten-free,” including things like coconut water, juices, cans of beans.
As an alternative, we have diligently worked on creating a comprehensive gluten-free list. We methodically looked at every product in the store and noted when a product has a GF label on it. [Note: There are no current FDA-regulated standards on what can be claimed as “gluten-free.” The product label is the responsibility of the manufacturer, and companies can change their ingredients or processing methods at any time.] We then compiled all of the products into a lengthy list, which is now available for all shoppers. The GF list is organized by section (i.e. “baking products,” “cereals,” “baby foods”) and is available in the Owner Resources Areas at both stores. We will continue to update this list as we bring in new GF products.
A FLASH IN THE PAN?
Whether we consider gluten-free eating a fad or a legit diet in response to gluten sensitivities, more and more folks are turning to it as a primary way of eating. In the Co-op Services department at Willy Street Co-op, we aim to respond to the needs of our Owners, and will continue to provide information about various developments in the food industry. If you would like more information about gluten-free eating, feel free to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
THANKS: Willy Street Co-op staff members Thane Wienandt, Maleah Moskoff, Joe Disch, Brooke Sutter, Ansley Knoch, Kate Richards, Jocie Luglio and Liz Hawley!