Any day now I’ll walk into a shop where a “Gluten Free” sign hangs on the wall. Striding up to the counter, pointing toward the sign, I’ll request a free bag of gluten. I haven’t done it yet. I’m rehearsing a straight face. Until I succeed, any shop can safely keep the likes of me away simply by inserting a proper hyphen between the two words. But please, no colons.
The gluten-free diet evolved as a health alternative for people who no longer want to suffer the intestinal discomforts of gluten intolerance. It takes guts. Excessive gas and diarrhea inspire many of its victims to adjust the way they eat. A gluten-free friend told me at a social gathering how his diet has significantly reduced embarrassing encounters at social gatherings. I congratulated him, as I cautiously squeezed his hand.
The word “intolerance” fosters an awkward relationship between those who won’t eat gluten and those who will. It’s not the same as telling someone you have a peanut allergy. Pop a handful of nuts into your mouth and the doubters can watch your face swell up as you start wheezing. If you manage to mumble “I told you so” before doubling over, at least you’ll have created a believer.
Gluten doesn’t work that way. Claiming you can’t eat gluten won’t summon the paramedics, or even a sympathetic flutter of hugs from your friends, and certainly not from strangers. A few people might say, “Gee, I can’t tolerate gluten either” but some will just look at you, roll their eyes and ask, “Well then, what can you eat?”
It all sounds so natural. Gluten is a protein. It has been around since the dawn of agriculture. Accounts of historic figures whose lives were shortened by gluten don’t exist. Julius Caesar didn’t die of gluten, unless his conspirators smeared it on the tips of their knives.
By checking a list of ingredients on packaged foods, disciples learn what to reject: mainly products containing wheat, though barley, rye, and many seasonings/spice mixes also include gluten. Sometimes even lunch meat. Not to mention (but I’m going to anyway) durum, einkorn, farina, faro, and spelt. If it’s unhealthy to swallow a spelt, then how foolish one must feel having missed spelt while scrutinizing an ingredient list.
Once I hosted a little gathering and invited friends to a potluck. Big mistake. I received earnest replies asking what food I’ll be serving, shadowed by the inevitable follow-up question, “What I can I bring?” By the time I made note of all the dietary restrictions, my spontaneous potluck had turned into a minefield. GFFs sometimes avoid dairy, soy, GMO, and even nuts. In the end, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “Just bring something you can eat.”
Dining out poses other getting-safely-back- home challenges. You can’t just drop bread crumbs anymore. Menus evolve, and entree descriptions at the better restaurants try to offer customers essential dietary information. A simple Grilled Reuben with choice of side might be rephrased to read, Grass-fed corned beef on Jewish kosher gluten-free rye, baked with amaranth flour and sprouts, grilled in extra virgin olive oil. Topped with an aged reduced-sugar/salt brine sauerkraut, non-dairy Swiss cheese, on a bed of arugula and kale. 855 calories (sandwich only). Traditional low-fat Thousand Island dressing or heart-healthy vinaigrette available. Substitute sweet potato fries or butternut squash medallions for only $2 more.
Researchers fear only 20 percent of Americans who suffer from celiac disease — which can be made even more serious by eating gluten — have been diagnosed, but in a study of 55 glutenfree dieters cited by WebMD, 53 tested negative for the disease. Gratuitous gluten- free diets may also pose nutritional health risks. Some 1.8 million Americans are celiacs, and another 1.6 million observe gluten-free diets. Reportedly, there is little overlap between the two groups. So go ahead. Eat more fruits and vegetables. It can’t kill you. Meanwhile, the $7 billion gluten-free food marketing industry would like to see self-diagnosis continue.
Recently I bought four gluten- free chocolate chip cookies for the outrageous price of $5.
I ate one, then passed the remainders along to a GFF who reluctantly accepted them. My aversion to the wretched little excuses for cookies might have been obvious on my face, though I’d prefer to believe his own alternative food experiments had already taught him to be wary.
So during these holiday get-togethers, stay wise. In the end, choosing the best foods for a healthy lifestyle may be less concerned with what we put into our mouths, but more about how much of it goes in.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.