Gluten Free? – When even a slice of toast is not a simple choice.
Posted by Jane De Graaff on March 03, 2011.
Food Guru looks at the importance of understanding and offering Gluten Free
For those of us who don’t require a Gluten Free diet the concept of Gluten Free (GF) dinning and why it’s necessary can be fairly confusing- and not without good reason.
For a start there are a number of different grounds for excluding gluten from the diet, from celiac disease (where gluten causes inflammation of the small intestine lining), to wheat allergies and varying levels of gluten intolerance. The symptoms of these conditions can range from low-level discomfort, to severe gut complications and none of them should be taken lightly when it comes to offering GF options.
The problem is that with the attendant confusion on the subject, support regarding the need for GF choices can be varied- often resulting in a lack of options on the GF menu, or no options at all.
“You could be celiac or have a wheat allergy,” says Melbourne based food blogger Emily McConnell, “but it’s all the same when you’re eating out because people don’t really appreciate the distinctions [between the conditions]. So it’s safer just to ask for Gluten Free.”
But the differences in the conditions can be explained fairly simply.
- Celiacs suffer from an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine. Irritation of intestine lining is triggered by gluten (found in wheat, rye, barley and oats) and can result in severe health complications including poor immunity and malabsorbtion of nutrients.
- Gluten intolerance is the inability to digest the complex protein gluten. Not as severe as a celiac condition, symptoms include painful bloating and stomach cramps. It’s uncomfortable but usually doesn’t result in long-term damage.
- Wheat allergy is a sudden allergic reaction to a protein component of wheat. It can be sudden and severe, causing short-term discomfort including cramping, bloating and exhaustion.
The prime difference to note is that celiacs and people with gluten intolerance need access to a wholly GF diet, whereas people suffering from wheat allergy need only avoid wheat.
McConnell, who posts restaurant reviews and Gluten Free recipes on her blog itpleasesus.com, is personally wheat intolerant. For her this means that any exposure to foods containing wheat has some very uncomfortable results.
“I get horrible bloating.” She says ruefully. “I’ll look pregnant, with a distended stomach and terrible stabbing pains. It happens fairly quickly after eating and lasts about 12 hours.” Not a nice result from a piece of toast.
Despite her discomfort, McConnell reserves sympathy for those who suffer from celiac disease. “The distinction for me is that I can tolerate some wheat, but for a celiac just two crumbs can cause them severe issues.”
In acute cases, celiacs exposed to gluten may need to be hospitalised for related complications. With such ramifications it’s a wonder that it’s taken so long for the wider community to take GF requirements seriously.
“A lot of people think that it’s a lifestyle choice and that you’re just being difficult.” Says international musician Jacqueline Dossor, who struggles regularly with making her gluten intolerant condition understood in her international travels. She has resorted to carrying an i-phone application that explains her condition in several languages, and when all else fails opting for a simple order of steak with no sauce, or salad with no dressing to be guaranteed a GF meal.
“Many people don't realise that most processed foods like dressing or sauces contain gluten.” She notes. “Often the chefs don't even know what gluten is or make the mistake that it's just wheat.”
Surprisingly, Dossor says she’s found the most acceptance of her condition in Italy, despite the wide use of gluten rich staples like wheat based pasta, breads and pizza dough. Here she’s found that GF diets are taken very seriously and a good range of GF products can be obtained from the pharmacy.
For pastry chef Pierrick Boyer, offering GF options and being aware of what the condition means is simply part of his job, regardless of his own dietary requirements.
“I have some dairy intolerance myself.” Notes the Melbourne based, internationally trained chef and culinary consultant. “So I understand how important catering for allergies is. More people feel they can ask for Gluten Free options now and they ask to speak directly to me. It’s important that I can tell them that I understand their situation and put them at their ease.”
Whilst all three agree that there is certainly a rising awareness of the need for GF options, it was not always so and there has been a marked improvement in GF offerings in the last decade.
“Certainly more people cater to it now and there are businesses who specialise in it,” smiles Boyer, “but my first Gluten Free inquiry was more than ten years ago. I was working at the Ritz Carlton in Boston and we were all like ‘what is that’? None of us knew what it was.” He says with disbelief at his own naiveté. “It wouldn’t be like that today.”
A final issue for the GF is that of taste. Finding a GF option does not always result in an appetizing offering. Simply put: not all GF items are created equal.
“I love to find a good bakery item that isn’t flourless orange or chocolate cake.” Sighs McConnell. “Other flavours are always welcome. And I have to say that I really appreciate good quality GF bread when you’re out.”
Bottom line, if you’re hoping to serve it someone who requires GF, taste it first and see if you’d eat it even though you don’t require a GF option.
On the plus side, with more producers looking to the needs of the GF, if you find something that’s really worthwhile, chances are it’ll make a great (and thoughtful) addition to the pantry no matter what your diet. And you’ll be able to serve it guilt free to your GF friends without fear.