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Gluten Free Foods: Grocery Shopping and Cooking at Home

When you begin a gluten free diet, you'll do a lot of label reading. Don't worry...this, too, gets easier with time.

You’ll do a lot of label reading at first. Don’t worry…this, too, gets easier with time. Before you know it, you’ll know which of your favorite foods are safe and which you need to avoid. And you’ll discover so many new options you never knew existed.

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), charged in 2007 with providing guidelines for gluten-free labeling, finally reached a consensus in the summer of 2013 regarding a safe threshold for labeling products as gluten free. They followed Europe’s lead and agreed on 20 ppm (parts per million) as a generally safe level. As of August 2014, all products bearing a gluten free claim on their label must fall within this parameter. 

When food companies – and many grocery stores that have a line of their own “private label” (store brand) products -- put a “GLUTEN FREE” label on their products, it can be extremely helpful, as it saves you from having to read the ingredient list.  

Just because a product isn’t labeled gluten free, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t. There are still many packaged products with long lists of (often unrecognizable) ingredients that you will have to confirm to be gluten-free. When starting out, it’s safest to either CALL the manufacturer (if there’s a toll-free number on the package) or consult one of many guides or apps to help you with this.

The Celiac Support Association has a fantastic spiral-bound Gluten-Free Product Listing available for only $30 which is updated yearly and contains 400+ pages of both national and store brands. You can order the guide (or its CD format) by calling 877-272-4272 or visiting their website.

Triumph Dining also sells a similar Grocery Guide for $24.95, and many companies offer smart phone apps (some free, some for a nominal fee) that list gluten free products. And the Celiac Disease Foundation has a FREE online Gluten Free Resource Directory, searchable by product category.

Sometimes it’s quickest and easiest to call the manufacturer, visit their website, or do an Internet search (i.e. Breyer’s ice cream gluten-free) to get your answer. You can even call right from the grocery store if you can’t figure out from a product’s list of ingredients whether or not it’s gluten-free! Is That Gluten Free and other similar apps give you access to a searchable database of gluten free products organized by category and brand right from your smartphone.

But now what? You’ve purchased the food, but will you be able to make a lot of your favorite recipes? Well, that depends. Certainly, some of your recipes will already be naturally gluten-free, or easy to convert with a few simple modifications. For example, you should be able to still make your favorite lasagna recipe by just substituting gluten-free lasagna noodles. (Both Tinkyada and RP’s Pasta brands offers gluten free lasagna noodles!)  In fact, it’s usually easy to adapt most recipes, even those containing flour, since there are so many great multi-purpose gluten-free flour blends available now that can be substituted cup-for-cup when cooking or baking.

But if you prefer to try some new gluten-free recipes that don’t even require you to experiment with substitutions, there are literally HUNDREDS of great gluten-free cookbooks on the market. Notable editors include Carol Fenster, Jules Shepherd, Danna Korn, and Connie Sarros.  You can find these at virtually any bookstore or online at Amazon.com..

Eating at Home

Let’s start with the easiest of the new challenges: eating at home. Your own kitchen is where you’ll have complete control, and even if you have some family members who aren’t gluten-free, you can keep the gluten-free family members safe.

You now have some tips on how to shop and where to find recipes. The next thing you must understand is how to avoid CROSS CONTACT, or as some people say…CROSS CONTAMINATION, in your kitchen. Of course, if your entire household is 100% gluten-free, this is easy. But typically there are at least one or two family members that don’t need to follow a gluten-free diet, and there are likely to be at least a few potential hazards you need to be aware of.

Take, for example, the toaster.  There is no way it’s safe for you to put a piece of gluten-free bread in the toaster that is filled with crumbs from gluten-containing items.  Even a few crumbs of gluten can (and will) make you very sick. You will need to buy a new, dedicated toaster – or toaster oven – and use it ONLY for gluten-free bread, bagels, frozen waffles, etc.

You don’t necessarily need to buy a separate set of cutting boards (although it’s never a bad idea)…you just need to be sure to wash them thoroughly after anything with gluten has been cut on them. (It’s also best to avoid wooden cutting boards, which can harbor small particles of gluten.) And you absolutely cannot prepare a “regular” sandwich on a cutting board and then prepare a gluten-free sandwich on the same board without washing it. Again, even a tiny bit of gluten will make someone with Celiac Disease sick.

Clean countertops, wash pans, and wash your hands thoroughly when shifting between gluten and gluten-free food prep/handling.

Although you do not need to have separate jars of jams, peanut butter, mayonnaise, and other condiments, the utmost care needs to be taken to avoid “double dipping” (i.e. dipping your knife in mayo, spreading it on regular wheat bread, and then dipping it back into the mayo jar to get more). This will contaminate the jar of mayonnaise with gluten crumbs. So family members all need to be educated, trained, and reminded. You may decide it’s best to keep separate containers of certain things, label them with your name or “GF,” and make them “off-limits” for other family members.

Another area of potential contamination is when cooking gluten-free pasta. If you are making two batches of pasta (one regular, and one gluten-free), you MUST have a separate pot of water for the gluten-free pasta. You should never use the same water you may have used to cook “regular” pasta (this is more relevant to restaurants who often keep pots of boiling water on the stove and dip baskets of pasta in to cook). You must also use a separate, clean colander and a separate utensil to stir the pasta. If you stir the regular pasta with a slotted spoon – and then stir the gluten-free pasta with the same spoon, the gluten-free pasta will be contaminated and potentially make you sick.

(**Note: With gluten sensitivity, the body does not experience the damage to the intestine that Celiacs experience.  It’s possible that small amounts of gluten (like from cross contamination) can be tolerated, but this may vary between individuals. If it turns out you don’t have Celiac Disease but are gluten sensitivity, pay particular attention to your own body and how sensitive you are.)

This will all become second nature to you after a short time. But now you can probably see why dining out at restaurants can be tricky…and full of potential pitfalls.  But it certainly can be done if you do your research first and stick to the right restaurants. For more information, see our Dining Out and Traveling page.