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Thursday 7 March 2013

A Guide to Gluten Free

Over the last ten months, we've been bringing you a weekly gluten free recipe to remind you that just because you can't eat wheat, you don't have to give up on delicious food. Even bread, cake and biscuits are still a possibility, but, what is gluten anyway, and why is is such a big deal? Well, it's a protein that you find in wheat, barley and rye grains and it can make some people really quite ill.

For people with Coeliac Disease, this protein isn't recognised by the body as a foodstuff, instead their immune system reacts like it's a pathogen and the result is damage to the lining of the small intestine which can lead to anaemia, osteoporosis, infertility or recurring miscarriages and some cancers. It's an autoimmune disease that can only be treated by avoiding gluten for the rest of your life. If you're intolerant to gluten, it usually means that you lack the enzymes needed to properly digest it, which cause a range of symptoms from stomach pain and bloating to skin conditions and headaches. Some, very unlucky, people are actually allergic to wheat or gluten and will have an anaphylactic reaction to even very tiny amounts of those grains. Whatever the cause, the results of eating foods like pasta, pastry or pizza are never particularly enjoyable.

Where do you find gluten?
In grains like wheat, rye and barley and any flour or starch made from them, but also beware of:

Spelt (it's lower in gluten, but it's still in there)
Bulgar wheat
Oats (unless they're certified gluten free)

What food is gluten in?
Short answer, practically everything. It's used as a thickening agent and a filler in lots of foods so always check the label. There are some obvious things to avoid, like:

Cakes, biscuits and other baked goods
Breakfast cereals
Noodles (egg, udon and ramen noodles are out, but some rice and soba noodles are still ok)

Then there's the less obvious things:

Ready-made soups, sauces and gravy
Stock and stock cubes
Soya sauce
Salad dressing
Textured vegetable protein
Processed meat
Baking powder
Some spice mixes

So, what can I eat?
You might be in despair when you look at these lists of foods to avoid, and probably wondering what's left? Worry no more, there's still loads you can enjoy. All fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy products, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, potatoes and rice are gluten free so you've got plenty to chose from. For some ideas of condiments, stocks and sauces you can perk up your meals with, check out our list of gluten free suggestions. There are some good ready meals available now, too, for those days when you really can't be arsed to lift a saucepan, have a wee explore of your supermarket and health food store to find Freedom Deli and Amy's Kitchen meals.

If you just can't live without bread, pasta and biscuits, you can buy gluten free versions from the freefrom aisle at your local supermarket, or you can make your own. Just because you can't bake with wheat flour, it doesn't mean you can't bake at all; there's a veritable plethora of other flours you can use. Aside from the pre-mixed gluten fee flours you can find (I use a lot of Dove's Farm Organic's Plain and Self-raising flour mixes), you can make your own mixes using any number of gluten free flours out there, made from:

Rice (brown rice, white, rice and sweet white rice are all brilliant for baking)
Chickpea (gram flour)
Ground almonds
Corn (polenta, cornmeal and cornflour/corn starch)

You can find these flours in health food shops, the 'world food' and 'whole foods' sections of large supermarkets or online at Goodness Direct and Drossa. To get started, try some of these suggestions for flour mixes, just combine and store in an airtight container. Each recipe makes 1kg of flour.

All purpose flour mix
  • 500g brown rice flour
  • 300g tapioca flour
  • 200g fine cornmeal
Self-raising flour mix
Bread flour mix
  • 400g teff flour
  • 200g millet flour
  • 250g sweet white rice flour
  • 100g Buckwheat flour
  • 50g psyllium husk powder (it adds elasticity to the dough, you'll find it in heath food shops)

Cross contamination is a real concern, especially for Coeliacs. Even an accidental crumb in the butter is enough to make us ill for days. If you house share with gluten-eaters, try to have a designated free-from section of the kitchen and use your own utensils to avoid gluten unintentionally getting into your food. If your toaster has been used for normal bread, then you're better off using the grill (well scrubbed or lined with foil to protect from crumbs) to toast your GF loaf. Wooden spoons and chopping boards can soak up gluten in small amounts and non-stick pans can hold it in scratches, so keep your GF cooking implements separate, or use silicon and steel which don't seem to retain those pesky glutens in the same way. I label my spoons, boards, and toaster to avoid confusion. 

Cooking for a gluten free friend? 
Don't be afraid! So long as you check the ingredients on everything you cook with, and make sure you don't serve the gluten free pasta with the same spoon you served the wheat pasta with, you'll be fine. There are loads of naturally GF recipes you can make, risotto is always a safe dish if you make sure you check the stock ingredients. Hazel's sherry soaked chicken (she uses cornflour to thicken her gravy) and Sara's Thai salmon curry and definite winners, too. Don't forget dessert, you can't go wrong with rice pudding or meringue. If in doubt, do ask, it's always preferable to answer questions about gluten rather than to be poisoned by your friends, even if it's inadvertent.

Got any questions about gluten free diets? Ask away!


  1. Caleigh, what tips do you have for eating in restaurants? I'm guessing most of them can avoid the big stuff, but might not be so aware about the rest? Is there anywhere that's particularly good, or any cuisines that you stick to when you eat out?

    1. If you can, call ahead and ask to speak to the manager of the chef and explain what you can't eat. Most of the time, places are very accommodating and if you give them some warning they're happy to help. For spur of the moment meals, most chain restaurants have allergy folders or special menus so they're a good shout.

      I love Wahaca at the moment, all their staff are well informed and there's lots on the menu I can eat. Generally, Mexican, Indian and Spanish cuisines have good GF options, Thai and Japanese food need more care and a few substitutions. Italian and Chinese food are the most difficult, so unless you know the place well and trust the chef, I'd be wary.

      Don't be afraid to ask lots of questions of your waiting staff, I know it feels a bit demanding, but it's that or you feel rubbish after eating and no one wants to pay someone else to make them sick!

  2. Such a handy guide- this would have been so useful to me when I first gave up gluten.

    It seems impossible at first when you realise you can no longer eat more than half of the food in the supermarket but it definitely gets a lot easier, as you learn what to buy and what to make. And blogs like this one help you to feel normal!

    1. Glad we can help! It is daunting when you have to rethink your weekly shop, but you're right, it does get easier. It's not a good idea to hang around the bakery aisle and get angry about not being able to eat anything in it. I learned that the hard way...

  3. Hi can u use the all purpose flour and self raising flour for cakes and biscuits????

    1. Yes! Use them whenever the recipe calls for gluten free flour.

  4. Your list is so useful and concise. I have it printed and keep it in my handbag for easy reference - thanks.

  5. Your list is so useful and concise. I've only been diagnosed recently and am still making silly mistakes! I keep a printout in my handbag - very useful.


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