Can “Gluten-Free” Food Be Trusted?
Bad news for celiacs and people with gluten sensitivity.
If you were excited about Domino’s new gluten-free pizza — it may or may not actually be gluten free. The thing is, the ingredients it’s made with should be totally safe for people with a gluten intolerance. The problem is that most restaurants have no idea how to avoid cross-contamination with products that contain wheat. Or they do, but it’s too much effort for them to make kitchens safe.
And that’s dangerous if you have a real medical issue with gluten. Studies show that as little as 50 mg of gluten can cause physical damage to the intestines of people with celiac disease – that’s only 1/100th of a normal slice of bread. Even if a celiac patient doesn’t have a physical reaction at that level of exposure (it varies from person to person), it prevents healing of any past damage to the intestinal lining. And any trace amount of gluten could be dangerous to someone with a wheat allergy, a separate condition.
Here’s the other thing: there’s no legal standard on what “gluten free” actually means. The FDA recommends that GF products contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, but for many highly sensitive individuals, this amount is still too high to consume without danger.
This is a huge problem particularly with GF grains which are processed on the same equipment as wheat — one study showed that 32% of naturally gluten-free grains and seeds like rice, quinoa and corn may be contaminated with levels of gluten that range from 25 to nearly 3,000 ppm. And many of the products under 20 ppm, while technically “safe” for celiacs, still contained high enough levels of gluten to cause some unpleasant symptoms in some people, and could prevent or delay the healing that a gluten-free diet is supposed to bring.
So what’s a person with gluten intolerance to do?
Well, you can only buy grains, seeds, or baked goods produced on dedicated gluten free equipment, or products which undergo routine 3rd party testing to ensure they’re actually safe. The problem is, these tend to be really expensive. And most of the wheat substitutes used in these products, like white rice flour, are high in simple carbs and basically junk food.
Or you can also do what I do (let’s just say it’s hard to find packaged GF products in Malaysia) and replace grain products with lots of fresh fruits and veggies.
Luckily, the popularity of the Paleo diet is making it easier than ever to find veggie-based substitutes for grain products. Instead of rice, I eat finely chopped cauliflower. Instead of pasta, I shred zucchini into “noodles.” I’ve even found an awesome all-vegetable lasagna that doesn’t use pasta at all – and tastes exactly the same as the real deal. I make wraps out of lettuce instead of tortillas.
The great thing is, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and unprocessed meats are all naturally gluten free — and much less likely to be contaminated than packaged grains. Vegetables are higher in vitamins and minerals than any grain, and they contain enough fiber to make up for the lack of grains in your diet. And fresh vegetables are far, far more affordable than gluten-free bread.
And if cost is the issue, well…nothing’s stopping you from splurging on GF goodies from a company with good manufacturing processes every once in a while.
Photo credit: Dawn Huczek via Flickr