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Changing my tune about gluten-free labelling

When my nephew was diagnosed with celiac disease I found out more about gluten and here’s what I discovered

Believe me, there was a time (not too long ago) that I was the biggest scoffer of any gluten-free labelling on foods that clearly did not have any wheat, barley or rye in it. Gluten is a protein that is only found in those specific grains, so why was there gluten-free oatmeal? Clearly there is no gluten in oats! Gluten-free sandwich meat? Gluten-free tea? Same! Or was I wrong all along?

My four-year-old nephew was diagnosed with celiac disease last April. His mom noticed his belly was chronically bloated and he complained of tummy pain frequently. She had him screened for celiac disease with a blood test that showed one of his antibodies for celiac, IgG, was off the charts. He was officially diagnosed when a biopsy of his small intestine confirmed the presence of this autoimmune disorder by showing damage to the villi.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about the gluten-free diet, for those whose health truly depends on it (not fad dieters), is that the more frequently they are exposed to the gluten protein, the higher risk they are for triggering the onset of other autoimmune diseases and complications in the future. It’s not like a person with lactose intolerance who can just take some Lactaid to compensate for lactose ingestion. If a person with celiac disease is exposed to gluten, even via cross-contamination, they risk damage to their small intestine acutely, and autoimmune health issues in their future. It’s a big “oops” to make, which is why I’ve been extremely diligent about ingredient reading.

I go the extra mile, as should anyone preparing food for someone with celiac disease, and use separate butter so that I don’t accidentally contaminate his food with bread crumbs. I would have to deep fry anything separately for my nephew because I often fry gluten-containing products in my deep fryer. I make his french toast in a separate frying pan and have tried my hand at some gluten-free baking too. Sources for contamination are everywhere; this is something that never crossed my mind when he was first diagnosed.

Therefore, we often see oat products labelled as gluten free; they are one of the highest-risk foods to be contaminated by gluten, as they are often harvested using the same machinery as wheat, barley and rye and processed in the same plants. Oats must be certified gluten free for them to be safely consumed by people with celiac disease. To be certified, oats need to be grown in fields that haven’t grown barley, wheat or rye for at least three years. Farmers who grow certified gluten-free oats need to meticulously clean all equipment that comes into contact with the oats: the combines, grain trucks, augers, bins, etc.

Beware of hidden gluten! Believe me, I know that sounds like a sensationalist scare tactic you might find in an anti-wheat book or website, but there really is gluten in a lot of products and the source of that gluten isn’t always obvious.

  • Read more: Cheerios to remove ‘gluten-free’ claim

Here are just a few of the ingredients to look out for that contain gluten: HVP/HPP (hydrolyzed vegetable/plant protein), modified food starch, malt, maltose, brown rice syrup, triticale, kamut, graham flour, brewer’s yeast, and all types of wheat, such as: durum, semolina, einkorn, spelt, faro/emmer, and bulgar.

I made sloppy joes for a harvest meal last year, and after the fact, my sister-in-law thought to ask if they had tomato soup in them. Yes, they did… why did she ask? Well, the brand of soup I always buy has wheat flour listed as the fourth ingredient — I was completely shocked. It wasn’t even a “hidden” ingredient, but I never thought to look at the ingredients on soup that wasn’t obviously containing gluten like a beef barley soup. Now I know I must be extremely paranoid, for lack of a better word, about the food I prepare for my nephew especially using sauces, marinades, soups and even broths.

Should everything not containing gluten be labelled gluten free? Absolutely not, but marketers don’t always care and want to cash in on their products. In an ideal world, it would be awesome if anything that could possibly contain gluten be labelled as gluten free, such as: soy sauce, barbecue sauce, mushroom soup, etc. Should celery, potatoes, watermelon or apples that never have and never will contain gluten be labelled as gluten free? I really don’t think so.

However, before you jump on the gluten-free-label-hating bandwagon, (I was there previously too, I admit!), just take a moment to read the ingredients to see if there really is gluten and the label is justified. The labels have made my life a lot easier learning to shop for the people with celiac in my family.

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