Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cookbooks and What it Means to Be Gluten-Free

Yesterday, I got a late Christmas gift from my mother and in the box was a gluten-free cookbook. It was a thoughtful and wonderful gift.

I immediately started thumbing through it and found bread recipes. Yippee!  Maybe I can have some sort of bread!

But I was surprised that one of the recipes was for rye bread. It calls for rye flour and barley extract. Okay, that's weird. The other weird thing about the cookbook is that it is gluten-free, wheat-free and dairy-free. I'm not certain why but a lot of places assume that if you have a gluten sensitivity, you likely have a dairy sensitivity too. I don't.

The weird part about the recipe for rye bread is that most people who have a gluten sensitivity avoid rye and barley as well as wheat. The proteins in rye and barley are virtually identical to wheat and are a form of gluten. The lesson?  Gluten-free may not always be gluten-free.

I guess the issue here is whether you are sensitive to gluten in general or wheat gluten in particular. Since my allergist confirmed an allergy to barley and malt, I'm going to go with gluten in general is bad for me. So, no using the rye bread recipe.

On the other hand, the potato bread recipe sounds yummy and I'm putting making some on my weekend agend. We hated the other breads that we could buy in the store. Seriously, tapioca bread is gross!

I'm hoping that the potato bread is tasty. I'd really like to be able to have things like garlic bread and cinnamon toast again and the hubby really missed PB&J.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gluten-Free Cough Drops

My battle to avoid the flu that hit my husband seems to have failed, but instead of the horrific stomach flu he had, I got a touch of stomach flu and a persistent head cold. The result has been a lot of coughing. Then more coughing.
Last night, I slept about half the night on the couch to avoid keeping him awake with my coughing. And, my couch is cushioned enough that I can sleep sitting up, so the draining sinuses were less irritating to my throat and I could sleep in two hour bursts.
So, what has this got to do with gluten-free living?  Apparently, a lot.
As I mentioned previously anything that needs a thickening agent often uses wheat gluten, so many medicines have gluten in them. This week, we went searching for gluten-free cough drops.
Several sites online can provide you with lists of gluten-free foods and their manufacturers, though it's always a good idea to check the label yourself. Since cough drops are not food, they don't have a nutritional label or a complete list of ingredients. They list the medications involved.
I had to rely on a list I foudn online. And the only cough drops I found, though there may be others that my cold-fogged brain didn't see, were Hall's Sugar Free Cough Drops.
Now, if you are trying to erase gluten from your diet as part of a weight control plan, sugar-free cough drops might not be a problem. But we are much more interested in foods with fewer refined chemicals, so sugar-free was not high on the list.
And, they are expensive. I can get a bag of a hundred Kroger brand cherry menthol cough drops for a couple dollars or a bag with 25 of the sugar-free ones for about $4. Ugh. 
Cough drops being cough drops I wasn't concerned about the taste, but the price --combined with the dayquil and nightquil I've been consuming every four hours left me depressed.
Gluten-free is healthier for me, but it sure isn't cheap.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gluten-Free Chicken Noodle Soup

So, I woke up this morning to a very sick husband. He was rapidly dehydrating from losing his dinner and everything else in a very stomach flu type manner. At this moment, we are still debating the ER because of the intense abdominal pain he is experiencing. My gut reaction is appendicitis.

But before I reralized just how sick he really was, I started adapting the menu plan. We make a bi-weekly menu plan that helps us keep our grocery bill reasonable and keep us on track nutritionally. But after a night like he'd had, the idea of feeding him enchilada anything seemed pointlessly cruel.

Chicken noodle soup is the perfect cure tummy trouble, bland enough to keep it down, but with enough nutrients to help him heal, right? 
In the old days, I would have opted for chicken and slicks or dumplings, arguing that making the noodles myself somehow added curative properties to the mix. I ready a book once about kitchen witchery that argued that was exactly why chicken soup has such curative prperties -- the love and concern that is poured into it as you cook.

But those options are out as they both require lots of wheat flour. In the end, I decided to add some shredded chicken breast (already prepared for the casserole I intended to make) to unsalted chicken stock and boil up some rice noodles. I had to add some salt and very light seasonings to make it tasty for the non-sick member of the family, but it came out pretty well if I do say so myself.

At this point, the hubby has not tried to eat anything for about 12 hours and he's only been able to keep down pepto bismol and water.  If he can't start keeping down something with electrolytes (they're what plants like!), we'll be headed to the ER. *Fingers crossed* that is not on our agenda today!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Thai Kitchen Noodle Cart Thai Peanut

The quest for gluten free convenience foods has been a difficult one for me. I’m not a huge fan of cereal or most breakfast foods so pre-diet my breakfasts were usually something tossed on a slice of bread. Or, when I had time, a really good Southern breakfast with biscuits and milk gravy, sausage and eggs, maybe even grits.

Since I haven’t figured out how to make gravy or biscuits with rice flour, and am rather concerned about the texture if I did find a recipe, I’ve been searching for other options.

Some of my favorite gluten-free foods now come from Thai Kitchen, a division of Simply Asia Foods in Berkeley, California. The local food co-op carries some of their foods as does Kroger and the other grocery story, a Midwestern chain called Schnucks, has a lot of varieties of Thai Kitchen foods. And, this week, they’re on sale!

That meant that today, I had had Thai Peanut noodles from their noodle cart line for breakfast. Yes, for breakfast. The single serving noodle cart line is on sale for $2 each this week. Not a great price, but it’s not bad for breakfast for one. According to the Thai Kitchen site, my choice for breakfast is in the mild category. I would call it too mild. This breakfast had a nice flavor, but was almost sweet. The peanut bits are nice and the meal prepares in less than 5 minutes in the microwave.

But there are some downsides to my noodle-lovers breakfast.

First, the packaging. I am, by no means an environmental extremists, but the Thai Kitchen Noodle Cart meals are wrapped in a cardboard sleeve with all the nutritional an advertising data. Inside that, is the plastic wrapped plastic container with plastic lid for preparing the food in. The rice noodles and oil are also packaged in plastic. And the meal comes with a plastic fork.

Short version, if you need a fully contained meal to take to work and leave in a desk drawer for those days when you forgot lunch, these are perfect. For me, eating at home, it seemed like a lot of environmental waste.

The other problem I had with this dish was due to operator stupidity. The noodles are warmed for 2 minutes in the microwave and then the lid is added to finish steaming the noodles. The box instructs you to carefully hold the plastic container and drain the excess water through the pre punch holes in the lid. I didn’t hold it tightly enough and some of my noodles slid right down the sink.

Second, the nutrition. For pure calorie content, the Thai Kitchen rice noodles are a decent meal, with about 240 calories for a single serving. However, they have 46 grams of carbohydrates and 390 milligrams of sodium. The nutritional content is definitely not the best.

However, for someone like me who often skips breakfast, the noodles are an easy way to change that. The prep time is short and the noodles taste good. They are a product of Thailand, so the taste is reasonably authentic as well.

Bought by the case at the Thai Kitchen website, the cost of the noodle cart entrees drops to $1.67 plus shipping and shipping is based on the total cost of the order, not weight, so it is relatively reasonable as well.

Other gluten-free favorite from Thai Kitchen include their sweet chili sauce – an excellent sauce for dipping anything—and light organic coconut milk. Until Kroger expands their Thai Kitchen offerings, I’m going to need to shop more at Schnucks.

I know there are cute and fancy ways of adding this disclosure, but for now I'll do it this way. I bought the products mentioned here. I paid for them and ate them. The opinions have nothing to do with any promotional activities from Thai Kitchen and Simply Asia Foods except a decent sale at Schnucks.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Weird Ideas About a Gluten-Free Diet

I've heard my friend Amy Duncan get frustrated on numerous occassions about the weird ideas that some people have about low-carb diets. People who get their information third or fourth hand, have never tried the diet and certainly don't understand the basic tenants aggravate the heck out of her.

Silly me, I thought I wouldn't have to deal with that. Gluten-free, though complex because of all of the places where gluten derivatives are added to processed food, is basically pretty simple. Avoid products made with wheat, barley and rye or processed with them.

So imagine my surprise this morning when a friend mentioned she had heard that a glutne-free diet needs to avoid potatoes.

What? Potatoes? 

The conversation went something like this.

"I was talking to Goog when he was visiting last week and he has a friend on a gluten-free diet and she can't potatoes, so they must have gluten in them..."

Err, I can't even begin to point out all the flaws in that logic, but I'll start with: potatoes do NOT contain gluten. In fact, for many people with gluten allergies or sensitivities, potatoes provide an easy starch to replace wheat. Potato flour can make a tasty bread substitute for white bread (though buyign potato bread at most bakeries is still out--It will almost always contain wheat flour too.).

Potatoes are full of vitamins and healthy fiber (if you eat the skins) and not one lick of gluten. I know my low-carb friends avoid them because they are very high in carbohydrates, but for the gluten-free diet, potatoes are not a problem.

So then I wondered what other misconceptions about gluten-free diets might exist. This is the first one I've run into, but what about you? Can you share weird ideas about gluten-free diets that you have heard?

On a totally unrelated note, my husband has been nominated for a Preditors & Editors award for best horror short story of 2009. If you don't already have a favorite and wouldn't mind giving him your vote, please vote at Last Caress, by Steven Thor Gunnin. They do require that you give them your email address, but theywon't share it, sell it or spam you. And, you could win a prize just for voting.

Thanks for reading  and please share your favorite misconceptions about living gluten-free!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Gluten-Free and Chex Muddy Buddies

Four months ago when we first went gluten-free, my husband and I started looking around for gluten-free products. We went to our local food co-op, which has lovely bright green stickers on the shelves to indicate gluten-free items. We found some of what we were looking, some rice pasta and some Blue Diamond Nut Thins, very tasty crackers, but we were disurbed by the lack of breakfast cereal that was gluten-free.

We found granolas and a few high priced, gluten-free things on the cereal aisle. To be fair, the food co-op tends to have prices that are a bit higher than the chain grocery store. But what really surprised us was that none of the cereals we thought should be gluten-free, like Rice Krispies, were. Nope, they're flavored with malt syrup.

This lead to two major problems. First, an abiding fear that we would never be able to eat the things we liked again and second, a huge need to find desserts that we could eat.

Before we went on the gluten-free diet, we ate desserts about once a week, when we had company. But with the holidays on the horizon and the fear that we wouldn't stick with a diet if we felt deprived, we began to search high and low for gluten-free desserts or things that could be made into gluten-free desserts. Rice Krispies treats, something we hoped originally that we could continue to have, were off the menu.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, my friend Amy Duncan pointed me to GlutenSmart, a sister company of CarbSmart, where I can get gluten-free Rice Krispies treats. Ok, so they aren't the name brand. Who cares?

But all that aside, what we found while trying to celebrate the holidays and sort of stick to the comfort foods we grew up with was that we were eating a lot of junk that we normally don't eat. We made lots of cookies with almost meal and rice flour. We tried several varieties of gluten-free mixes, most which tasted like grit and were things that we didn't normally eat before we went gluten-free.

It seems that we sort of forgot our basic healthy eating rules when we decided to go glutne-free.  Oops!

However, the one good thing that came of our foray into foods we shouldn't eat even though we can was that just before Christmas, we found that General Mills had announced their corn chex and rice chex were now gluten-free!  They call it muddy buddies, we call it puppy chose.  Whatever you call it, chocolated and peanut butter coated chex was now an option for the holidays!

The more interesting thing about the announcement is the side panel on the cereal box saying why General Mills did it. Apparently, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one if every 133 Americans has some form of gluten sensitivity. That's a lot of people fighting the bloating, misery and health impacts caused by consuming wheat.

The move also makes two major mainstream brands that have gluten-free foods. Betty Crocker also recently introduced a line of gluten-free cake and cookie mixes. Gluten-free is gaining steam and I have the muddy buddies to prove it.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Gluten-free and Winter Storm Watch

Ok, so everyone knows that when you get a winter storm warning you run to the store for bread and milk and then prepare to wait out the storm, right?

Well, that's what I used to do. For any storm that threatened the power, bread for sandwiches was vital to the preparations. That way, even if the power went out, we'd have something decent to eat. I know you can eat veggies and soup and such directly from the can, but that is seriously a last resort.

So right now, we are staring down the first big winter storm (for us) of 2010. To be fair, it only is threatening 3-5 inches of snow. Not a lot. I wouldn't be concerned at all except that since the windstorm here on May 8, 2009, the power at my house has been less than reliable.  We've had power outages on clear summer days with no explanation except that one of the heavily damaged power lines snapped.

Combine already weak lines with snow and wind, both promised for here tomorrow, and I worry about power outages and I live in an all electric house.

So, I try to plan. What can we eat if the power goes out?

Until we went gluten-free, the answer would have been sandwiches. In fact, our emergency food larder was stocked with things like crackers and poptarts and things that provide quick energy without power.  Not exactly an option now.

So, if you face a winter storm, or any other storm, on a gluten-free diet, how can you plan quick, cook-less meals?

Personally, I'm beginning with granola.  Our local Food Co-op carries several brands of gluten-free granola. Combined with vanilla low-fat yogurt and maybe some fruit, this is a great breakfast, packed with energy. For lunches, we'll have cheese and sausage. Again, not the healthiest of meals in terms of caloric values, but decent enough to eat when the power's out and they don't ahve to be cooked or refrigerated.

For dinner, I'm planning for nachos. While I would prefer my cheese melted, throwing some already diced chicken, some cheese and sour cream on a pile of corn chips is a gluten-free answer to soup and sandwiches.  If the power is out more than a day, look for me at the nearest hotel because I enjoy heat :)

I'm not expecting my power to go out tomorrow, but if it does, I have a menu plan that sticks to my basic dietary needs and can be prepared without power.  What's your plan?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cooking More to be Gluten-Free

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the few real problems we have encountered with our new gluten-free lifestyle is eating away from home. It’s no longer a spur of the moment decision and so far at least, seems to involve about four restaurants where we can go and get one or two different menu items.

Steakhouses are generally the safest, though any place that does not insist on breading everything in sight might be ok. The problem lies in the might be.

Asking a server if something contains gluten is often like asking them to define astrophysics and is met with the same blank stare. So, we resort to eating at home most of the time.

This results in two major problems: 1) I spend a lot more time cooking than I did before and 2) I can rarely catch a break from my own cooking.

Now, to be fair, I have an advantage that most people do not. I work exactly five feet, well, maybe less, from my kitchen. My husband and I run a self-storage facility and I’m a freelance writer. I’m more flexible to be able to make my own meals than someone who has to go to an office e very day. But…I lose precious time to doing it.

Since we switched our diet, I probably spend an extra forty minutes a day cooking, because I can no longer do soup and sandwiches for lunch. Pancakes, waffles and biscuits and gravy ( a major tragedy!) are no longer on the breakfast menu and cooking from scratch takes way longer than opening a can of Campbell’s soup.

To be fair, there is a decent line of gluten-free convenience food put out by Amy’s Kitchen, but the problem is that they are horribly expensive. I just can’t make myself pay more than $3 for a box of macaroni and cheese. So, I cook from scratch a lot more often.

I read on site about celiac disease the idea that the longer the ingredient list, the more likely something will contain gluten. I agree. So I try to cook from scratch, without benefit of boxes or mixes as much as I can. The result is that I’m getting a lot fewer other additives in my food as well, but I spend more time doing it.

So what about you? Any tricks for gluten-free eating that you can share?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dining Away from Home and Being Gluten-Free

The biggest problem I have found so far with adopting a gluten-free diet is eating food you didn’t prepare yourself.

Just after the Christmas holiday, my husband and I went to do some sale shopping and I found that all the old problems with my foot and my back came raging back, badly enough that I tripped and fell as we exited the mall.

Other that a rug burn on knee and some wounded pride, I was fine. But it terrified me. It was as though the MS struck all over again. The fear and the what-ifs that I felt when I was first diagnosed came rushing back and so did the terror.

Would I end up blind? In a wheelchair? Was I just imaging that the gluten-free diet was making me better?

My husband, who is often the voice of reason in these things, said it first. “Maybe someone screwed up.”

We had Christmas dinner with his parents; friends made us what were allegedly gluten-free treats for the holidays. But, not living with a food allergy, they might not have been as aware of all the permutations of gluten. My mother-in-law, for instance, was surprised that my allergy included malt.

So I went home, did some stretches and threw out all the wonderful food that I had not prepared myself.

Eating at a restaurant is just as hard. On New Year’s Eve, a friend was visiting from out of town, so we asked what she wanted to eat for lunch. Her choice? Quatro’s Pizza.

As we arrived, my husband was beside himself. Quatro’s is about the only local pizza he likes and he really wanted some since we were there and smelling it. “Is there something we can eat here?” he asked. He’s been so sweet, I told him to go ahead and have the pizza.

I ate a nice chef’s salad, but had to spend some time picking off the croutons that I forgot they add to them and I ate the toppings off a slice of pizza. To be honest, it was easier than many places where I’m just not sure.

Sushi? Sounds great, except I’m not sure about the soy sauce.

Roasted chicken? Did they flour the bird before roasting it? Most places do.

The solution, so far, has been to eat mostly at home and once I was back to being certain I was gluten-free the symptoms faded quickly. No more random dinners out for me, but in return, I get a healthier, more mobile me.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Can I Eat That's Gluten-Free?

In many ways the hardest part of going gluten-free for life is avoiding the sneaky places that the food industry uses gluten. And, not just the food industry.

When I decided to take this journey, my husband decided he was all in to help me. For a guy who loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it was a huge concession to my health. Is it any wonder I love this guy?

So, since we were serious about this, or at least giving it a good go, the first thing we did was learn all the ways that gluten might be disguised in your food. Generally speaking, barley, rye and wheat are the main sources of gluten. Some people who are extremely sensitive to gluten also need to avoid oats because they are often processed in the same facilities.

But none of those words make it clear that malt is a barley derivative swimming in gluten. Or, that modified food starch, especially in a product made outside the United States, may mean gluten. Inside the USA, it usually means modified corn starch, but if you are hyper sensitive to gluten, skip it to be safe.

Hydrolized vegetable protein can mean gluten too.

So, when we started going through our cupboards to remove all the gluten-laden products from our house, the box of food to give away kept growing. And growing.

The websites we had consulted warned us about processed foods. That’s ok, we bravely decided, processed foods are bad for us anyway. Then we started looking at our soup. Noodle soups, well, that makes sense. Give them away.

Cream soups. Oh, flour is used as a thickening agent, give those away.

Chinese food. What? That has rice and veggies, so where is the wheat coming from? Most soy sauce has wheat in it. The exception that we have found so far? Kroger brand reduce sodium so-called soy sauce, purists would disagree, does not have any wheat in it. Yippee!

Breads and pastas. Well, we expected that one.

Medications. What? Many of the fillers used to make pills are wheat based, so check with your drug manufacturer or pharmacist to find gluten-free options.

Makeup. Huh? Again, gluten is often used as a filler. I wonder if that’s why even quality makeup makes me break out so badly?

We missed some the first time we went through the cabinets and the first shopping trip to replenish our food options was a nightmare. Who knew that most cereal, even Rice Krispies, are flavored with malt syrup?

But the most devastating discovery was the Lindt milk chocolate is flavored with malt syrup. Lindt truffles has become a staple of our movie going experiences and dessert most nights. Three truffles are not terribly diet-breaking, about 170 calories, and Lindt is so rich that three is enough to satisfy the chocolate urge.

It’s good that the Lindt discovery came after I could feel my foot. Otherwise, this change might have been doomed from the start. The good news? Lindt white chocolate is gluten-free.

After four months on a gluten-free diet we have identified a number of products that we can use and do use, but adjusting to them takes some effort.  More on that tomorrow…

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Gluten-Free Beginning

In the past, when I have made a dietary change, it was generally not something I embraced with open arms. After all, we all know that dietary change is code for “eating crap that tastes bad” or “giving up everything I like.”

I was terrified at the thought that going gluten-free would mean the same thing. I love yeast rolls and pizza crusts and all manner of things made with wheat flour. Giving it up would be pure torture and there could be no health rewards worth it, right?

Despite that thought, about mid-October 2009, someone reading one of my articles at Associated Content suggested that I investigate gluten-free diets and their usefulness in treating multiple sclerosis. I read dozens of testimonials from people living with multiple sclerosis, like I do, and claiming that eliminating wheat gluten from their diet got rid of the MS symptoms. I scoffed, really I did. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered a family doctor telling a teenaged me that he thought I might be allergic to wheat gluten.

As a teenager, I scoffed and did nothing to change my diet. As an adult, I did what any good writer and researcher does. I checked the Web.

There were no good scientific studies that I could find that linked multiple sclerosis to wheat and gluten consumption. But there were claims, oh so many claims, that people felt better and got their mobility restored because of a gluten-free diet. I didn’t expect it to work.

Even as my husband I cleared our cabinets of everything containing gluten, which is a huge process, I figured we give it a game effort—two or three weeks maybe—and see that it was just another fad that had no real impact on our health.

I have had MS-related symptoms since 2001 and was officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. I’ve seen the MRI with the lesions on my brain. I had the spinal tap. In October, I’d lived since January, 2001, with limited sensation in my right leg below the knee and my right foot. It was sort of like constant pins and needles or delayed feeling. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t lived it.

My balance was shot; I couldn’t walk for more than about a quarter mile without shuffling my feet or falling. I had a semi-permanent bout of spasticity just below my rib cage. Spasticity is another common MS symptom, the feels sort of like wearing a girdle or weight belt all the time. Sometimes, it seemed to make it painful to breathe deeply.

And, I had semi-regular back spasms in the middle of my back.

All in all, I had a relatively mild lot of symptoms from the multiple sclerosis. I’m not confined to a wheelchair. I could usually walk without assistance, but not very far.

Four days into our gluten-free diet, my opinion on dietary change changed forever. As I walked out to the mail box that morning, I realized that I could feel my foot. Not the pins and needles that I normally felt, but a sharp, immediate pain when I stepped on a sharp rock.

I woke up my husband with tears in my eyes. “I can feel my foot!”

It took just a second for the sleep induced haze to lift so that he truly understood what I meant. My MS symptoms were fading after just four days.

Now, we are almost four months into our gluten-free journey. There are struggles and setbacks, questions I will need answers to at some point, but for now, gluten-free means almost symptom-free. Gluten-free for life isn’t simply a pledge or a temporary diet shift, for me, the switch to gluten-free means life. The life that my MS was stealing away, I seem to have won back.

It’s not easy…yesterday the temptation was Quatro’s Pizza, but come along on this journey with me as I discover how to be gluten-free for life!