The Challenge of Living Gluten‑Free
At least I knew what gluten was. Anyone who's ever baked bread or made pizza from scratch has at least a nodding acquaintance with the stuff. It's a complex protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that lends structure and elasticity to dough and imparts a satisfyingly chewy texture to breadstuffs. And since it's located in the endosperm of the grain (the meaty interior of the seed), it's in all conventionally milled wheat flours. Folks with digestions like mine — and that's a majority of the population — can eat breadstuffs and baked goods without problems. Unless they follow Farwell's lead, that is. He'll wolf down a whole baguette at one sitting, ripping off chunks and dunking them in olive oil, only to wonder why he feels a little "overfull" afterward. But the distress attendant on such gluttony is self‑inflicted and, as such, can safely be ignored. This certainly isn't the case for people afflicted with gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, a spectrum of disorders which includes celiac disease. For them, even small helpings of bread can trigger a constellation of miseries, ranging from bloating and diarrhea to headaches and joint pains. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that these would contribute nothing to the enjoyment of a backcountry holiday.
And the treatment for gluten sensitivity? You guessed it: avoid gluten. That's easily said, but with breadstuffs and pasta making up a large part of the "normal" Western diet, it's not easy to put into practice. Pasta is a mainstay of my meal plans, in fact, both on and off the water. I've got a lot of company here, of course, and the food industry predictably caters to mass tastes. The upshot? Anyone seeking to eliminate gluten from her diet has her work cut out for her. Substituting "safe" grains like rice for semolina pasta is just the start. The gluten‑sensitive shopper also has to be a Sherlock. Many prepared mixes and condiments contain hidden gluten in the form of wheat extracts and other less than obvious additives. Reading the fine print on labels is imperative.
This is cause for concern even if you can eat bread and wheat pasta without a second thought. Are you planning a family outing? Organizing a Big Trip with a group of friends? Taking a pack of Scouts on a weekend campout? Then there's a pretty fair chance that someone in the party won't share your untroubled digestion. And if you're in charge of the cooking, …
The Buck Stops With You
Getting back to John's letter for a minute: He knew he'd have to restructure his menu to accommodate his friend's needs, and at first he found it rather hard going. So would I if I'd been in his shoes. As I've said, my backcountry menu leans heavily on pasta and breadstuffs. So making it gluten‑sensitive safe would be a real challenge. But it wouldn't be impossible.
How would I begin? By enlisting the help of the person with the most to gain: the gluten‑sensitive individual himself. Together, we'd examine my Master Menu and purge it of all "known offenders" (see list below). This knocks many pastas out of the running, but that's just the start. We'd also read the fine print on all prepackaged mixes, condiments, and precooked meals, searching for hidden gluten.
That (necessarily incomplete) list of "known offenders" — grains likely to cause trouble for the gluten‑sensitive — follows:
Even this short inventory requires further explanation. Some gluten‑sensitive people eat oats without apparent problems. For others, oats are strictly off‑limits. Moreover, some oats and oat products — these include oatmeal, groats, and steel‑cut oats — are processed in facilities that also process wheat products, and cross‑contamination is always possible. The only rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb. Proceed with caution.
A couple more things to note in connection with this list: If the name triticale is unfamiliar, and it probably is, it identifies a hybrid grain derived from wheat and rye. Double trouble, in other words. Also bear in mind that barley can masquerade as malt, e.g., in malt flavoring and malt vinegar.
Wheat isn't always easy to identify, either, since it goes under a number of aliases. Here are some:
- Graham (flour)
Durum or semolina is frequently used in making pasta, and couscous is another semolina product. So you shouldn't conclude that something is wheat‑free just because you don't find "wheat" listed among the ingredients. See what I meant about having to become a Sherlock?
Happily, though, as awareness of gluten‑sensitivity has grown, manufacturers and food‑processors have started to label their products accordingly. I'm beginning to see packages bearing legends like "Gluten Free" or "Contains Gluten" or "Processed in a facility that also processes wheat." These help, though of course their usefulness will depend on the accuracy of the labeling. Prepared foods and mixes that should get the most careful scrutiny include:
- All processed cakes, cookies, and pies
- Breads, crackers, and croutons
- Dried soups and sauce mixes
- Canned soups, stews, and meats
- Condiments like ketchup and soy sauce
- Meal kits and other prepackaged entrées
- Hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats
And this list isn't exhaustive. (I never said this would be easy, did I?) The only absolute guide? If in doubt, leave it out.
Or take another approach altogether. Instead of eliminating the known offenders, select from among the roster of foods proven to be gluten‑sensitive safe and build up your menu from there. (But beware of products which may have suffered cross‑contamination.) Here's a roster of safe alternatives to start with:
- Beans (though not baked beans, unless labeled gluten‑free)
- Fresh eggs
- Most dairy products
- Fresh, unbreaded meats, poultry, and fish
- Fresh fruits
- Fresh vegetables
- Most unprocessed seeds
- Most unprocessed nuts
See the problem? There aren't any dehydrated or freeze‑dried foods on the list, are there? And the reason? Gluten is often introduced during processing. The only thing you can do is ask the manufacturer if the product in question is gluten‑free. Or you could dry your own, instead.
Now let's see what cereals and flours might be safe for the gluten‑sensitive. Here are some candidates:
- Buckwheat (this "wheat" is safe)
- Corn Meal
- Grits (hominy)
- Flours marked as gluten‑free (almond, rice, corn, branded gluten‑free wheat flour, etc.)
A word of warning: Gluten‑free wheat flour cannot be freely substituted for regular wheat flour when baking. It has very different properties. Consult gluten‑free cookbooks for guidance.
Are you a pasta person? Then, notwithstanding my earlier cautions and caveats, you're in luck. Not all pastas and noodles are made from wheat flour. Products made with buckwheat (the safe "wheat," remember?), corn, rice, and other grains are well worth trying. And a Japanese buckwheat noodle called soba is both delicious and versatile. Look for it on the shelves of Asian markets and in the International Foods section of the HyperMart. (A hint: Check the package to make sure the ingredients don't include wheat. It's sometimes added.) You may also want to give rice noodles a try. Some are cut wide like fettuccine. Others are drawn into long, thin threads. Don't assume that you can prepare these like their wheat‑based counterparts, however. Be sure to read the package instructions.
The bottom line? Compiling a gluten‑free menu won't be easy, but it is possible. You'll need the help of your gluten‑sensitive companions, though, particularly if they fall on the extreme end of the sensitivity scale. In rare instances, individuals will need to have their meals prepared with utensils used for no other foods. In such cases, it makes sense to consider separate catering arrangements for the affected paddler(s), including a personal meal plan, menus, and cookware. And the same solution might be best for large parties, especially if those members not burdened with gluten‑sensitivity rebel at the restrictions imposed by the gluten‑free diet. Since these things can't easily be sorted out after you leave the put‑in, talk through the alternatives beforehand and decide the catering arrangements for the trip well in advance of Departure Day.
So far, so good. But I haven't had much to say about snacks, have I? And eat‑on‑the‑go food plays an important part in the paddler's day. Nuts, seeds, and dried fruit should be safe for gluten‑sensitive paddlers, but many (most?) energy bars have a wheat‑flour base, or contain other ingredients on the proscribed list. The solution to this problem? Well, Ginnis, another In the Same Boat reader, has devised a gluten‑sensitive‑safe energy bar, and she's graciously allowed me to reprint her recipe. Here it is:
Ginnis' Gluten‑Sensitive‑Safe Oatmeal‑Date‑Nut Energy Bars
Yield: 45 one‑inch‑square bars
- ½–3⁄4 cup honey or agave nectar
- 1½ cups almond butter
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 4–5 large eggs
- ¼ cup flaxseed meal
- ½ cup almond flour
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup chopped dates
- ½–1 cup craisins or other dried berries
- 1 cup chopped walnuts (black, if available)
- 2 cups gluten‑free oats (Trader Joe's, if available)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray or grease either a 10‑ by 15‑inch or an 11‑ by 13‑inch cookie sheet. Set aside.
Combine honey (or agave nectar, the amount to be determined by your sweet tooth), almond butter, oil, vanilla, and eggs. Mix well. Add flaxseed meal, almond flour, cinnamon, and salt. Once again, mix thoroughly. Now add the dates, craisins, and walnuts. Mix. Finally, add the oats and give the mixture one last, vigorous stir. Ladle the resulting "batter" into a pan and spread evenly with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 22–25 minutes, or until the edges start to brown. Remove from the oven, and allow the pan to cool completely. When cool, cut into 1‑inch squares — or 1‑ by 2‑inch (or larger!) bars, if preferred. The bars will keep several days without refrigeration, or up to two weeks in the fridge.
Optional Extras Sunflower seeds, chocolate chips (not a good idea in hot weather!), or coconut.
What do you think? These energy bars sound good to me. In fact, I'm going to give them a try on my next trip. (Thanks, Ginnis!) Of course, we've only begun to explore the challenges confronting the camp cook devising his first gluten‑free menu. But I hope this article points the way.