It’s not hard these days to come across “gluten-free” labels—in your grocery store and in delis and restaurants around the country. And with the recent standardization of gluten-free labeling by the Food & Drug Administration, you’re sure to see even more products being labeled gluten-free moving forward.
Why it matters: almost 30 percent of Americans are avoiding or eliminating gluten from their diet—many because it just makes them feel better and many others for medical reasons.
An estimated three million Americans suffer from something called Celiac Disease—a genetic autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine, and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food when gluten (the protein in wheat, barley, and rye) is eaten. (If you suspect you might have problems digesting gluten, ask your doctor to be tested.)
For those with Celiac Disease—just like those who have a nut allergy—flours, doughs, pastas, and any products containing gluten, can’t touch (or even mix with) gluten-free foods because it would cross contaminate them. Some people even suffer from airborne Celiac Disease, which can be particularly dangerous if food—particularly in a restaurant—isn’t prepared properly.
And therein lies the problem, says Alice Blast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Many chefs and foodservice providers remain unprepared and uneducated on how to provide gluten-free food that’s safe, says Blast, who has Celiac Disease herself. (Blast did not find out she had Celiac Disease until she was trying to get pregnant—one reason she wrote the article, “Celiac Disease and Reproductive Health Issues.”)
That’s the reason Blast has spearheaded a Great Kitchens‘ 10-City Gluten-Free Chef’s Table Tour , which recently kicked off in NYC at Iron Chef finalist Jehangir Mehta’s restaurant, Mehtaphor, located in TriBeca. The aim of this tour: to educate people, the media, and restaurants about what exactly gluten free is—and the importance of having gluten-free options available to those with Celiac Disease.
We got a chance to catch up with Chef Mehta, who is passionate about the importance of having gluten-free options on the menu. Here are his tips on eating gluten free:
1) Eat foods naturally gluten free. “One of my core beliefs as a chef is that your health and your diet are inextricably tied,” says Mehta, who adds that naturally gluten-free foods are a great option. Many ethnic dishes, he says, are naturally gluten free because places such as Mumbai, where he grew up, use a lot of rices, beans, and spices, in place of the more expensive wheat and flour.
Other foods naturally gluten free are those that are healthier for you than processed foods. These include fresh fruits (like apples, oranges, berries, and pomegranates) and vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, carrots, and cauliflower). Keep in mind that canned fruits and vegetables aren’t always gluten free; you have to check the labels. (The more ingredients, the greater risk one of them contains gluten.) Single-ingredient frozen fruits and vegetables (and simple mixes, sans sauces) are also gluten free.
Also, just because the lettuce you’re eating is gluten free doesn’t mean the dressing is, particularly if it’s bottled dressing. Be safe, and make your own with extra virgin olive oil and wine or rice vinegar (both are gluten free)—but skip distilled white vinegar and malt vinegar, which are not gluten free.
Fresh meat and fish are also typically gluten free, but be aware of meats and fish that are ready-to-cook or in ready-to-eat side dishes. These may not be safe to consume as the store may use sauces or even bread crumbs with gluten. Also be careful around processed meats like hot dogs. Many brands, like Applegate, carry the gluten-free label—but never assume if you don’t see the label.
2. Make your own. Can’t get what you want from your grocery store or local restaurant, make it. If you’re motivated to make your own gluten-free pasta, Meta recommends using chickpea flour, water, and grapeseed oil along with eggs (and an extra yolk to give taste and texture).
For a list of gluten-free recipes you can make at home, click here and check out this Holiday Pinterest Board, too. Also download the Gluten-Free Cooking and Baking Essentials Checklist. (Also, check out this great gluten-free website with recipes from author Elana Amsterdam.)
3. Become a label reader—and stay educated. Know which brands produce gluten-free (and even dairy- and nut-free) products. (Click here, for a list of manufacturers.)
4. Frequent restaurants that take gluten-free seriously. There are plenty of restaurants like Mehta’s Mehtaphor that offer plenty of gluten-free options. Click here to search for local restaurants with gluten-free menus.
For a sampling of what we tried at Mehta’s Mehtaphor, as part of the Chef’s Table Tour, scroll below (all recipes are gluten free—and delicious!).