Unless you grow all your own food and haven’t visited a supermarket or a food co-op for quite a while, you have doubtlessly noticed two short words now appearing on the packages of both new and familiar items as you stroll the aisles: gluten free. You’ll find them on packaged products in nearly every aisle of your neighborhood grocery store. Meanwhile, Portland pizza chains post signs for their new gluten-free pies and you can find gluten-free breads, cookies and cakes at local bakeries and farmers markets.
You may well wonder what the growing interest in gluten-free foods is all about. A mere decade ago, most people had no idea what gluten was. Today, the glue-like protein found in grains like wheat, rye, barley and oats (except specially packaged gluten-free oats) is becoming widely known for causing digestive and other health problems for some people—leading them to avoid foods with any gluten. Easier said than done, though, because gluten is not just in pasta and breads, but in an enormous range of products, from beer to chewing gum, processed meats to yogurt flavorings. And some people need to avoid its mere presence in the air at bakeries and restaurants. Other people, who have not been diagnosed with gluten intolerance, are choosing to eat a gluten-free diet because they believe it will improve their overall health.
It’s a complicated picture, as I learned when I set out to do some research, talk with a few health and nutrition experts, and compile a list of information resources.
Gluten Intolerance Not Easy to Diagnose
Ken Weizer, a naturopath with Providence Integrative Medicine Clinics, says that naturopaths tend to have more general awareness historically than MDs about how food affects people. Although most of his patients are undergoing cancer treatment and have enough concerns without making big dietary changes, the 53-year-old doctor puts some patients on gluten-free diets and follows such a regimen himself.
“Gluten intolerance is hard to diagnose,” he says. “It’s hereditary, but families may be unaware of it. When you educate people about digestive responses to certain foods, you might be able to connect the dots, but gluten-sensitive people can also be symptom free. And usually symptoms do not show up until people are in their 40s or 50s. There are several types of tests available, but none is perfect, so a confirmed diagnosis can take a long while, sometimes years.”
Symptoms associated with gluten intolerance, according to Weizer, may include gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, autoimmune diseases, infertility and malabsorption of key nutrients that can lead to problems such as osteoporosis. Adopting a gluten-free diet can begin to help in a week for some people, he says, but can be slower and more subtle for others. The typical symptoms people develop occur when the reaction to gluten in the diet begins to damage the villi in their intestines.
Estimates vary, but Weizer agrees with research suggesting that 30 percent of Americans may be gluten intolerant and that a smaller number of people, somewhere between one in 133 and one in 225, have a severe form of gluten intolerance known as celiac disease. His concern is that more and more people are self-diagnosing. “As a physician, I have a concern that other things might be missed. A gluten-free diet is not the answer for everyone. A condition such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is not the same thing, but it could also be gluten related. There is a place for an objective, thorough evaluation.
New Gluten-Free Products: Help or Hindrance?
Andrea Nakayama, 44, a Portland-based certified nutrition educator and holistic health counselor bases her business, Replenish PDX on the old adage that food is the best medicine. She teaches clients—some referred by doctors and naturopaths—how to eat and prepare food that will help them and their families with various health issues, including depression, diabetes, cancer, severe allergies, autism, ADD and ADHD, fatigue and more.
“I’m not a proponent of eating gluten,” she says. “I talk to people about how it affects their health and how to make the transition away from it. I’m a whole foods nutritionist so I encourage whole foods—not processed foods—not just taking foods out of the diet, but bringing foods in, such as seed grains (amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and millet). Even though wheat is a traditional grain [the problem is] it’s not being grown in this country the same way as before—the gluten content has been increased to make products more appealing.“
At the same time, gluten-free products are one of the biggest trends in the grocery industry. Nakayama is not excited about them. “A lot of gluten-free foods are overly processed and have a lot of sugar, especially the baking mixes. My major mantra is, we should eat meals with good fats, fiber and protein, not snack on something like gluten-free pretzels by themselves. The body is an ecosystem—where I start is healing the digestive system. When my clients try a whole foods diet they feel so much better that they don’t need to be convinced.”
One of Nakayama’s passions as a parent and educator is teaching other parents about optimal nutrition for their children, which is the focus of Your Vibrant Child a four-month teleseminar that includes a detailed look at problems with gluten.
Can You Trust Product Labels?
Gluten-free products previously occupied a small amount of grocery store shelf space. That’s all changed. At local New Seasons Market stores Christi Reed, one of three staff nutritionists, puts her personal experience with gluten intolerance to use in leading gluten-free store tours and developing gluten-free recipes and information. She’s been following a gluten-free diet for 10 years.
Reed says hundreds of new products are being added to New Seasons’ gluten-free shopping list, which currently has about 2,000 products. She doesn’t expect that gluten-free interest will decline soon and points out that for people with celiac disease eating gluten-free is a lifelong journey.
“Some companies are adding ‘gluten free’ to their labels, while others are removing the term from theirs, perhaps if they cannot keep close tabs on cross-contamination,” says Reed. “We are now seeing labels that say ‘no gluten ingredients’ or ‘naturally gluten free.’ There is no FDA regulation on gluten-free labeling, which makes it somewhat challenging for shoppers, but companies such as Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie produce gluten-free products in a dedicated gluten-free environment and actually test their products for possible contamination. I always suggest these products to our customers as I feel confident they are truly gluten-free. Bulk department products, as I point out on store tours, don’t work for people with celiac disease because of cross-contamination.”
Reed’s favorite products include Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free baking mixes and Sonoma Teff Wraps. For traveling, she likes to take with her a package or two of Ancient Harvest Quinoa because the increasingly popular grain is lightweight, versatile and cooks in just 15 minutes.
Wheat–Free Worry-Free: The Art of Healthy, Happy Gluten-Free Living
A good “starter” book by Danna Korn, recommended by Dr. Ken Weizer
The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook
Book and blog by Alissa Segersten, recommended by Andrea Nakayama
Gluten-free Portland Resource Guide
Book by Wendy L. Cohan, R.N. (www.glutenfreechoice.com), with good health information, plus a guide to about 30 restaurants with gluten-free options, advice for traveling and grocery shopping. Available at Mirador, New Cascadia Traditional Bakery, Food Front and Powell's Books.
An excellent all-about-food web site that includes gluten-free recipes, articles and cookbook reviews
Gluten-free girl and the chef
Award-winning blog and cookbook by Shauna James Ahern and chef-hubby Daniel Ahern
Product and restaurant reviews, gluten-free and gluten-free friendly caterers, events, etc.
- GrainDamaged: a Blog for Celiacs, Gluten Free and Wheat Free Folks Sponsored by the Portland Metro branch of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG)
Take a Class or a Tour
Lost Arts Kitchen
new gluten-free cooking classes taught by Chris Musser
classes taught by Andrea Nakayama.
New Seasons Market
Monthly gluten-free store tours at all locations (see Wellness Classes at www.newseasonsmarket.com) and cooking classes at Happy Valley store. Store tours provide recipes, a Gluten-Free Diet Quick Start Guide and an extensive shopping list.
Gluten Free Choice
Cooking classes taught by Wendy Cohan, R.N.
Bob's Red Mill
See the full range of 60 gluten-free products at the Whole Grain Store and Visitor Center, have breakfast or lunch at the café (some wheat-free, but not gluten-free options); check the web site for information on cooking classes and tours of its nearby milling facility.