I didn’t know I had celiac disease, also know as a gluten allergy, until about six years ago, and now I have to be careful eating everywhere I go. Gluten can be anywhere, even hidden in places that you wouldn’t expect it to be. I have had to become a food label detective in order to keep myself as well as my daughter safe. When you have a gluten allergy, or any food allergy for that matter, there are some things you need to consider in order to remain safe.
Think and Prepare Ahead
Recently, I was visiting my friend, Hemme in her home. She knows me very well and is aware of my dietary restrictions, so prior to my visit, she asked me for a list of foods that will be safe for me to eat during my visit. I sent her a list of foods that are generally okay for me to eat, and she actually did a great job accommodating my gluten allergy. Even still, I nearly had a reaction.
She was preparing fish with a breading and thought that she could simply make mine without the breading and I would be fine. What she didn’t realize is that by having the fish on the same tray or even in the same vicinity, cross-contamination could occur. This is a huge problem people with gluten allergies commonly encounter. She was really happy I caught her and called this to her attention before I got sick, but such realizations are not so easy when dining out in a restaurant.
Then, Hemme was going to prepare some pasta. I eat lentil pasta because I can’t have the corn or rice that is often in other kinds of gluten-free pasta. She consulted the list I had sent her prior to my visit and bought lentil pasta for me to eat with my fish. Hemme bought frozen lentil pasta instead of fresh or dried. I read the package and sure enough, it contained cornstarch and rice flour, so I could not have that either. Sometimes things that seem like they are safe at first glance really aren’t.
The Packages are Lying!
I’m sure we have all been to the grocery store and have gotten lured in by all the different packages. We look at the front of the package and pick which variety of a product to buy. It may list a few key ingredients and maybe some nutritional information, but that’s just the beginning of the story. In order to get the full picture, you have to turn the package over to the back. That is where you’ll find the rest of the information: all the ingredients and nutritional information.
Sometimes, you even have to be a scientist or detective to find out exactly what you are eating. Especially with more processed foods, ingredients may go by different names or contain additives to make foods shelf stable for longer periods of time. Sometimes you almost need to recognize the elements of ingredients or certain key words to know if something is safe to eat. It can be very deceiving. For example, something that does not typically contain corn may use corn syrup as a sweetener. If you can’t have corn, then you also can’t have corn syrup or corn starch, and therefore this product is unsafe to eat.
The Dangers of Cross-Contamination
My daughter also has celiac disease. I have to educate people as to what is safe for her to have when I am not with her. She went to my friend’s house one day to play with her daughter. I’ve eaten there many times before and have never gotten sick, so I thought she would also be safe eating there. My friend is always very careful about how she prepares food, but she had gotten her some fries from a takeout place. Well, later that night, my daughter wasn’t feeling well and I recognized her symptoms as a reaction to gluten. I was really surprised. I thought maybe I hadn’t cleaned the oven well enough after my boyfriend used it to make regular (non gluten-free) bread. I questioned my friend about what my daughter ate when she was with her, and she told me about the fries.
What my friend didn’t understand at the time is that even though the fries themselves might be safe, if they are fried in oil with other things that contain gluten, this can cause cross-contamination. That’s why when we go out to eat somewhere, we have to be sure that if she orders something like fries, they are the only thing the oil is used for. The restaurant using the same oils to fry something like chicken nuggets can result in an allergic reaction. Similarly, cooking areas and utensils need to be sanitized or designated as for gluten-free use.
Allergy Vs. Intolerance
Some people may not have a true allergy to gluten, but are rather just gluten intolerant.
When you’re gluten intolerant, you may get sick when you are exposed to gluten. Your stomach may hurt, or you’ll feel tired and just generally may not feel well. With a gluten allergy, also know as celiac, your body will actually attack the enzymes of gluten within the body creating an autoimmune response. This can often lead to other health issues as well. While not confirmed, I suspect that some of my other health issues may actually stem from having celiac disease and eating bread and pizza for 30 years.
Gluten is Everywhere!
Gluten is a group of proteins, termed prolamins and glutelins, stored with starch in the endosperm of various cereal grains. It is found in wheat; barley, rye, and oats as well as products derived from these grains such as breads and malts. It’s is found in many of the most common foods we all enjoy eating and can be very difficult to avoid. It’s in breads, cookies, cakes, pizza, cereals, and many other places that you wouldn’t suspect.
You always have to check the back of the package when you are trying to avoid gluten because, like I said before, the front of the package lies and the back of the package actually tells you what’s inside. You have to make sure that it says that it doesn’t have any wheat or wheat derivatives in it and that it actually says, “gluten free”. Gluten can be in unexpected places, even in foods you’d think would be safe, like chocolate or hamburgers. It is necessary to become a food detective and read what exactly goes in to a given product. This can be tricky as it can vary by brands of similar products and even by different varieties of a particular brand.
While I focused on gluten allergy and intolerance, as that is what effects my daughter and me, the same potential dangers exist when addressing any food allergy or sensitivity. Always consult the back of labels when addressing any food allergy or sensitivity. Even things that appear safe at first glance may not always be. Beware of cross-contamination. Taking these steps will help keep yourself and your loved ones safe and free from food-related reactions.