How to Go Gluten Free::Part 1::Labels & Condiments

In the last month I have had multiple people ask me for advice in going Gluten-Free.  For a time, I’ve had a little typed up Facebook message that I just copy and paste but as I have posted it and reposted it I’ve realized how much more I know and how much more organized I could be in sharing this.  So, voila! here we are!

I want to go ahead and make sure you all understand that I am not a medical person…I have no medical experience and I do not claim the ability to diagnose or treat you. I also am not a spokesperson for any of the brands or stores I will mention. I am just a mom of four living with a gluten-intolerance/Celiac’s Disease trying her best to eat carefully and not break the bank.

It was August of 2010 that I got my GF diagnosis.  I had just had my fourth child (two births, two adoptions, two miscarriages…there’s a story in there). Since my son had been born in late April, I had been sick nonstop. It didn’t seem to matter what I ate, every time I ate anything I felt sick to my stomach. I had several gallbladder tests, all of which were normal. I had severe pain in one hip and one knee akin to arthritis. I had swelling in multiple areas. I had never even heard of gluten before when the gastroenterologist called to tell me one of the tests she had run had given results: the blood screen for gluten intolerance had come back positive.  The nurse told me “Just don’t eat any gluten and we will see you next week.”
I googled “gluten” and was immediately overwhelmed.  You gluten-free folks know what I mean, right?
I then had a colonoscopy/endoscopy procedure. This returned mixed results: my body showed signs of gluten damage, like in Celiac’s Disease but the biopsy that was performed was negative. The doctor told me that for the biopsy to be positive I would need to have years of damage due to gluten intolerance and I likely hadn’t had symptoms long enough. But to go forward with a Celiac’s diagnosis and live gluten-free for the rest of my life. It sounds heady, y’all but really, I know enough about autoimmune diseases to know I got the best one- my treatment is to eat a certain diet and the effects of my illness are basically nonexistent. It’s not that much to ask.

Skipping ahead a few months I had learned that frozen gluten-free pizza and gluten-free “oreos” were NOT okay. I spent the first year living mostly off of Rice Chex and turkey deli meat.  It was a long time in before I figured out how to cook gluten free and buy gluten free. As time as progressed, there have been many more items stocked at regular grocery stores and life has gotten easier and easier. Now that you’re going gluten-free, you’ll find there are many more items than you expected to find.

I now feed my daughter a 100% gluten-free diet as she began to have many side effects about a year ago. My sons and husband eat a mix of “regular” foods and gluten-free foods. Though I see the health benefits of a 100% gluten free household I also must be financially realistic for a family of six. At this time, it is imperative that two of the six of us eat gluten-free at every meal and snack and that is the GF priority….while i completely support people who CHOOSE a GF diet, that just isn’t our story.  If I could eat bagels and donuts and subs, I would!!

The simple version of what-the-heck-is-gluten is that its a preservative in our food that is made from natural origins (wheat, barley, oats, rye). The idea once upon a time was a good one: use real food items to make preservative for food items. But as our lives have become overcome with the inability to make or grow our own food, we are ingesting far too much of it.
Access to gluten-free items is largely due to where you live. In small-town America where I live, the options are now growing. But the first couple years of my diagnosis, I could drive around 30 minutes to a store that is great…but very much out of my budget. I remember my first time checking out there I spent $100 on just me and felt like I got nothing, it was only snacks foods and convenience items- not enough to sustain me for any amount of time. I have a strict budget for food in my large family and $100 on snacks for one family member is not doable for us. Thus began the must-cook-every-meal stage of my GF life.

Some people will mock this but cooking all ingredients for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks is not something I had done before. My kids usually eat sandwiches for lunch, waffles and sausage for breakfast and cracker-type foods for snacks. None of those were home-made but all were store bought.  While I love fresh veggies and fruits and my kids do too, there are many factors to a meal and having to make every item for every meal was new to me. Now I’m more used to it- and there are more convenience items than ever before (think GF frozen waffles) and it’s gotten more and more simple. I’m glad things went the way they did though on my GF time-line because I learned so much about cooking and baking and gluten-free items than I would have if I could have afforded to purchase every pre-processed item out there.

Local grocery stores in my area are beginning to carry MANY items. If you live in some southern states, you know Food City. Food City is FANTASTIC because while they have a gluten-free section/aisle they also have flagged “gluten free” on multiple items throughout the store. So you’re in the BBQ Sauce aisle looking at hundred of BBQ Sauce and you’ll see 8-10 flags “gluten free” attached to the price sign. This is amazing. It wasn’t that long ago that I read EVERY SINGLE LABEL before buying any items.  I thank Food City weekly for the time and stress their little flags save me.
I do not regularly shop at Kroger but I have popped in from time to time and they also provide a lot of label help and have a very BIG section. Kroger is, of course, national so check them out where you live, too. Walmarts in some areas have gluten-free sections. (Some of these sections will be all convenience foods- I do recommend getting some of those to keep your sanity (Crunchmaster Crackers are delicious, Synder’s GF pretzels are awesome, if you have a GF kid you’re going to need Pirate’s Booty popcorn & GF puffy Goldfish) but if you eat only convenient gluten-free foods, you’ll break your bank and miss some of the point: those foods are gluten-free BUT they’ve used something else to artificially preserve those items. Don’t make that your whole diet or you might find MORE health issues in your life. That’s just this girl’s opinion.)

While I’m thinking about BBQ sauce, let’s discuss condiments. One thing you need to learn immediately when you Go Gluten Free is this: everything has gluten in it. Well, not everything. But assume so.  Read every label.  This will mean you can’t buy just any mayo or ketchup. You can’t eat mustard. You can’t eat soy sauce or sour cream. You can’t eat BBQ sauce (yes, I know I just told you there’s 8 to choose from- stick with me, we are assuming).  You can’t eat taco seasoning (okay, you really can’t- but it’s easy to make). You can’t eat salad dressing. You can’t eat anything!!!
Now. The truth is there a brand for every one of those things I just mentioned that ARE gluten-free. But you’re going to have to know that first.  Don’t eat out…don’t eat at your grandma’s house…without knowing what brands you CAN have.
JFG Mayo is safe. It clearly states on it’s label, in caps, GLUTEN FREE.  Finger Licking Good and Sticky Fingers (not all flavors) BBQ Sauces are gluten free.  Heinz makes a ketchup called “Simply Heinz” that is gluten free. French’s Classic Yellow Mustard & Honey Mustard are gluten-free. Most of Ken’s Steakhouse & The Silver Palate & Maple Grove Farms dressings are gluten-free, among tons of other dressings (read the label!). Daisy Sour Cream is gluten-free. But assuming that nothing is safe until you are sure will save you many stomachaches and damage done to your body.

While I’ve heard that a law is in the works to make labeling a legal issue, right now the label on food does not have to tell you if it’s gluten free.  If you see the words: barley, rye, wheat, bulgar, cereal extract, durum, durum flour, einkorn, emmer, farina, flour, kamut, semolina, spelt, sprouted wheat, wheat flour, wheat brand, wheat germ, wheat grass, wheat malt, wheat starch, triticale…you need to check that food. It contains gluten. If you see vinegar, caramel color, maltodextrin, dextrin, dextrose just check it- look it up online. Those ingredients can contain gluten but don’t always. If you see a GF or the words GLUTEN FREE then that company is backing it’s product as safe for you. Sometimes you’ll even see “Celiac’s Safe” Sadly you’ll sometimes see “Gluten Free” and then “warning: this item was packaged in a facility that contains wheat”….if you see that, you’re on your own: that company has used GF ingredients but isn’t promising the food didn’t contact other gluten items.  Your own sensitivity is what you should use as your decision maker there; some people are very sensitive to cross contamination (I am one of these- I cannot share butter or mayo, etc. with my non-gluten free family members…cannot share spoons or knives and cannot eat from a bowl of dip that someone has dipped a non-gluten free item in without getting sick. This not the case for everyone).

I hope this has begun a little help for some of you. Stay tuned for more info on How to Go Gluten Free.

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