By Marilyn Firth
For celiacs, health means surviving gluten-free in a gluten-filled world. Eliminating gluten from your family’s diet can be a challenging task. But once you learn the basics of gluten-free living, your family will feel better and enjoy the taste adventures that await.
In the year 2003, my son was ten years old. Each night, he would curl up on the bathroom floor, crying. During the day, we would go out, only to have to stop the car because he felt ill or because he would have to go to the bathroom, frequently and unexpectedly. His stomach hurt and hurt and hurt. He began losing weight and was unable to eat much at any time without feeling ill. We tried elimination diets and took him for ultrasounds and blood tests. Visits to doctors and medical specialists brought no solution. And we worried and wondered what to do, in a haze of exhaustion brought on by endless nights of broken sleep.
It was purely by accident that we found the answer. Our naturopath had recommended a wheat-free diet and, on that diet, we found our son felt slightly better. One day, I stood exhausted in a health food store, perusing a wheat-free cookbook. I was searching for a recipe that would make tolerable wheat-free bread, after many experiments that ended with loaves heavy enough to use as door stoppers. I came across something in that book that would change our lives. It was a small paragraph with one short description that could have described my son. I rushed home to do more research on the web, and found information that immediately helped me decide to put my son on a very specific diet. Within days, he was a different child. Though it would take time for full recovery, we had found the cause of our son’s pain, later confirmed by our doctor. The villain was a protein called gluten. His illness is celiac disease.
What is Celiac Disease?
So what is celiac disease? In a few words, when people with celiac disease eat foods containing a protein called gluten, their immune systems react and cause damage to the part of the small intestine that helps them absorb the nutrients in their food. Imagine that the small intestine is lined with finger-like projections. These projections are called villi, and the surface of the villi capture and absorb the nutrients our bodies need to grow and thrive. But for some people, when gluten is consumed, the villi are damaged and can no longer absorb adequate nutrients. For a child, the body is trying to grow but adequate nutrients just aren’t available.
When our son was diagnosed, celiac disease was considered a pretty rare disease. In fact, when we first took him to the doctor and later the gastrointestinal specialist, I directly asked if he could be celiac. They both insisted he was not. Today, estimates suggest that one in every 133 persons in North America and one in every 150 to 200 persons in Europe is affected by celiac disease. The only way to stop the damage and heal the intestine is to follow a strict gluten-free diet for life.
Gluten is specifically found in certain grains: wheat, barley, triticale and rye. It is the miracle that makes bread chewy. When these grains are removed from the diet, the intestines begin to heal.
So remove those grains and problem solved. Right? If only it were so simple! Alas, those three ingredients appear in multitudes of foods in our grocery stores, under all kinds of different names: bulgur, durum, couscous, malt, semolina, eikhorn, faro, spelt, graham flour, barley malt, to name a few.
To make things even more confusing, grains that do not contain gluten are often contaminated during processing with grains that do contain gluten. So celiacs must also avoid grains like buckwheat and corn meal unless they are specifically labeled gluten-free.
To further add insult to injury, there are many products on the grocery store shelf that may contain gluten, sometimes in tiny amounts: vitamins, toothpaste, sauces, salad dressings, spice mixes, candies, soya sauce, even prescription drugs.
So, what’s a celiac or the parent of a celiac child to do? There are two steps to surviving gluten-free in a gluten-filled world. The first is to learn to find the foods that don’t have gluten and the second is to learn to love them.
The first step involves learning to read ingredient lists like a pro and to question, question, question. For months after our son went gluten-free, shopping was a lengthy process, as I walked up and down the isles, reading labels and placing familiar products back on the shelf. You will quickly learn that the less processed the product, the more likely it will be gluten-free.
Rice is gluten-free. Packaged rice with spices and flavorings most often is not. Apples are gluten-free. Apple pie filling may not be. Buy close to the source and you will find much more to eat, with the unexpected bonus of creating a healthier diet. One little hint: The products on the outer circle of the store are often the safest for a celiac … fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats, dairy products. Don’t get me wrong, though; you still have to read every label. (Some brands of yogurt, for example, contain wheat starch.)
Fortunately, labels are getting better and gluten-free products in stores are becoming more varied and much more widely available. Five years ago, it was hard to find gluten-free bread even in a health food store, and what there was tasted bland and offered an unpleasing, gritty texture. Today, there’s a plethora of gluten-free foods in health food stores and larger grocery store chains often carry gluten free products in their health food sections and freezer departments. Though expensive, these products are much improved in the past few years.
Educating family, friends and teachers about celiac is imperative. There is a common misconception that eating a little gluten won’t hurt (“You can have just one cookie, can’t you?”) This assumption is dead wrong. Even small amounts of gluten can cause stomach pain, headaches and other uncomfortable symptoms and, worse, damage to the intestine.
At home, if only one person is celiac and the others still eat wheat, you will have to take steps to ensure the celiac food is not contaminated. For instance, the celiac will need a separate toaster and family members must be careful not to dip their wheat bread crumb-coated knives into the peanut butter. Many families have separate cutting boards for the celiacs in their families and separate shelves in their cupboards and fridges to make sure that gluten-free products stay that way.
When we discovered that our son needed to eat gluten-free, in a family with three small children, we found it easier to make our whole home gluten-free. My husband and I, as well as our second son, felt much better off gluten and we remain gluten-free six years later. It’s interesting to note that there is a one in twenty-two chance that first degree relatives may also be celiac. Doctors often recommend that if one person in a family is found to be celiac, the rest of the family should be tested.
For me, though, the most important change came much later, when I learned to love to eat and bake gluten-free. At first, I despaired of ever baking or eating a good loaf of bread again. Cookies crumbled and waffles were mushy and nearly inedible. Muffins had a spongy texture reminiscent of a floor mop. Yuck! Still, I was highly motivated to keep trying: Feeding a family of five gluten-free is outrageously expensive if you have to buy every loaf of bread and package of cookies!
The good news is that there are wonderful cookbooks out there with fabulous gluten-free recipes. When we first went gluten-free, I searched the library files and found three gluten-free books. Recently, I tried that search again and found over fifty! Gluten-free flours are readily available in health food stores and specialty stores, and even in mainstream grocery stores to a limited extent.
Most importantly, I’ve learned to revel in the variety of flours available. Oh, those wheat eaters, with their limited palates! There are many unexplored flours for baking and you can discover them all when you bake gluten-free: tapioca, potato, soya, sweet rice, brown rice, teff, white rice, quinoa, millet, corn, pea, garfava. Each has a distinctive taste and texture that makes gluten-free baking a delight.
Baking with these flours is different and it takes some time to learn to handle them. Like all new skills, a little practice and some trial and error make all the difference.
Two Little Baking Secrets
There are two secrets to help with gluten-free baking. First: Always use more than one flour in a recipe. Never replace wheat flour with just rice flour or just amaranth flour. Trust me, you won’t like it. These flours work best in combination. The secret is to see the flours in categories of heavy, light and medium and to be sure to choose at least one flour from each category.
The second secret is a little ingredient called xanthan gum.** This is a product often used as a thickener; you can see it listed on ingredient lists for ice cream, for example. You add xanthan gum in quantities similar to baking soda. Gluten-free flours don’t have that stretchy protein, so they tend to crumble and fall flat. Xanthan gum helps hold the ingredients together and give baked goods a nicer texture.
Try the recipes listed here or go to your library and take out a few of the plethora of gluten-free cookbooks. Then butter up a piece of gluten-free bread. And eat!
Kids with Celiac Disease : A Family Guide to Raising Happy, Healthy, Gluten-Free Children by Danna Korn (Woodbine House, 2001)
125 Best Gluten-Free Recipes by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt (Robert Rose, 2003)
The Best Gluten-Free Family Cookbook by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt (Robert Rose, 2005)
1 cup rice flour*
½ cup amaranth flour*
½ cup cornstarch or ½ cup tapioca starch
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. xanthan gum**
1 tbsp honey
½ tsp. salt
2 eggs, well beaten
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup milk or milk substitute (almond or rice milk work well)
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Approx. 2 cups water
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.
In a small bowl, add the lemon juice to the milk. Allow to sit for 5 minutes.
With a whisk, beat the eggs, then whisk in the oil, honey and then the milk mixture. Pour into dry ingredients and stir until well mixed.
Slowly stir in the water, until the consistency is about the thickness of a pancake batter. You may need a little more water.
Cook in a waffle iron according to the iron’s instructions. They will take longer to cook than wheat-based waffles.
If you are making a large quantity to serve all at once, set oven to 150 degrees F, and keep waffles on a rack in the oven until serving.
Waffles may be frozen and reheated in the toaster.
Basic White Gluten-Free Bread
(medium sized loaf)
2/3 cup cornstarch flour
2/3 cup white or brown rice flour
2/3 cup tapioca flour
2 tsp. potato flour
3 tbsp. soya flour
2 tsp. quick rising yeast
1-3/4 tsp. xanthan gum**
½ tsp. salt
1/3 cup melted butter or liquid shortening
¾ tsp. lemon juice
1 cup warm water
2 tbsp. honey
Grease a large bread pan and dust with rice flour.
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.
In the mixer bowl, whisk the eggs, oil and lemon. Add most of the water. The remaining water should be added as needed after the bread has started mixing.
With the mixer turned to low, add the dry ingredients a little at a time. Check to be sure the dough is the right consistency (it should be like thick cake batter). Add more of the reserved water as necessary.
Turn the mixer to medium and beat for 3-½ minutes. Pour the dough into the prepared pan, and let rise 35-45 minutes or until the dough reaches the top of the pan.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 50-60 minutes. Cover after 15 minutes with aluminum foil to avoid having the crust darken too much.
After taking the bread from the oven, cool just 5 minutes before removing from the pan. Gluten-free bread will turn mushy on the bottom if left in the pan too long.
* If you can’t find amaranth flour, substitute rice flour. You can use brown or white rice flour, but the waffles tend to stay crisper with white rice flour.
** Note: Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide produced by the fermentation of glucose or sucrose by the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium. Some people are allergic to xanthan gum and experience extreme intestinal symptoms and migraine headaches. Other people cannot tolerate fermented foods. Since the bacteria is usually grown on corn, some people allergic to corn will also react to it.
Marilyn Firth and her partner are farmers near Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she also teaches gluten-free baking classes. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.