I spent my teenage years in India and was able to travel to European countries twice a year. This experience exposed me to meals such as gluten-based breads, pastries and pastas. When I returned to America for college, I found myself having trouble adjusting to the food. I experienced nausea, weakness and fatigue. Much later, I learned that the wheat I ate in Europe and Asia is very different from the wheat we have available here.
All kinds of folks, from athletes and super models to people with arthritis or osteoporosis tout gluten-free diets. Benefits include clearer skin, improved digestive health, and even lessening symptoms of autism, anemia and multiple sclerosis.
Wheat, rye and barley all have the gluten protein, as do any derivations of these grains. It is the tough, sticky, adhesive coating that remains on the grain after washing it to remove the starch. Oats do not contain gluten, but are often listed as taboo in a gluten-free diet because, agriculturally, farmers rotate oats and wheat crops on the same ground, so it is impossible to keep the two grains completely separate.
Here in the United States, we have created a monoculture of high-gluten wheat. Gluten makes bread rise, which makes beautiful, puffy loaves of bread, pizza crusts and bagels. Unfortunately, this strain of wheat presents one specific antigen (a substance that can stimulate production of antibodies), and a lot of people develop an allergy to gluten as a result. Typically, these allergies occur in midlife or later, but studies have shown that with celiac disease patients, gluten can compromise even a young child's developmental capabilities.
It can seem like gluten is in everything we love to eat, but with careful planning and thoughtful choices, going "gluten free" becomes second nature. Many starchy vegetables and grains are naturally gluten-free, including corn, potatoes, rice, tapioca, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and soybeans. A gluten-free diet can also guide us toward healthier choices such as fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
Unfortunately, food manufacturers are sneaky with gluten. It can show up in unexpected products like ketchup, soy sauce, some beers and even ice cream, so read labels carefully if you are considering going 100 percent gluten free.
For my family, I have been trying to gradually replace gluten in our diet and, so far, no one has missed the gluten products. This may be a good choice for you as well if you aren't sure how well your family will receive dietary changes. You'll find a lot of gluten-free products available--bread, corn chips, and even cereals and cookie mixes.
A local health-food store such as Rainbow Natural Grocery is a good place to find gluten-free foods, but national chains carry and advertise more and more gluten-free items based on consumer demand. The products tend to be a bit pricier, but you may find, like I have, that you'll eat less bread when the loaf is more expensive.
Speaking of which, going gluten free is not a way to lose weight. The calories in gluten and gluten-free foods are similar. And, as with any diet choice, vitamins and minerals are important. With a gluten-free diet, you must carefully balance fiber, B vitamins, iron and calcium. Ask your doctor if you are considering a gluten-free diet. The results--less bloating, less intestinal pain and clearer skin--make it worth the trouble.
Here is a great, gluten-free pasta dish my family enjoys. Find rice noodles in the gluten-free or international sections of the market.
Rice Noodles with Tomatoes, Garlic and Red Pepper Flakes
While you can use any pasta sauce with gluten-free noodles, this one is not only light, it's fun to prepare. As you heat the tomatoes in olive oil, they skitter about until they reach tender perfection. Keep the lid on to achieve maximum flavor (and prevent splattering). This recipe is also a brilliant use for over-ripe tomatoes.
1 pound gluten-free rice noodles
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound of ripe grape or cherry tomatoes
Handful of basil leaves, chopped coarsely
Salt and pepper to taste
Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
Cook pasta as directed on package. I like to cook mine in chicken stock to add extra flavor. Stir often with a pasta fork as some gluten-free pastas tend to stick together more than their semolina counterparts.
Meanwhile, gently warm the olive oil and red pepper flakes with a sprinkling of salt in a skillet. Take care not to over brown. Add the tomatoes, and roll them around in the pan until the skins pop. This will take two to three minutes. For added flavor, I like to put a lid on the pan and let the tomatoes cook on low for a bit longer until they are meltingly caramelized--10 minutes or so. Add garlic later in the cooking process, being careful to simmer on a very low heat so the garlic does not scorch.
Drain pasta, saving a few tablespoons of the pasta water to add to sauce.
Add drained pasta, reserved pasta water and basil to sauce and simmer several more minutes.
Serve topped with the grated Pecorino