Iced sugar cookie cut outs in shapes of stars, circles and reindeer. Chocolate chip cookies. Rosemary lemon clover-leaf rolls. Challah bread. YUM! I love to bake. Where some love to cook, baking is one of my vices. This time of year I normally look forward to baking my holiday favorites for family and friends: russian teacakes, chocolate peppermint wheels, pumpkin-filled empanadas, and spumoni cookies. There is nothing better than a warm cup of tea, eggnog, coffee or a hot toddy to wash down the warm buttery goodness of a holiday cookie! And when I bite into that piece of delicious guilt, I savor every bit until…
…Until I feel a little uncomfortable. My stomach rumbles and not because it is hungry but because it is upset. Upset because I have a wheat intolerance. Unfortunately being wheat intolerant means shopping for gluten-free products in the grocery store.
What is gluten-free?
Most people who choose to go gluten-free do so because they have gluten sensitive enteropathy (GSE) or Celiac disease (CD). CD is an inheritable autoimmune disorder affecting roughly 1 in 133 people according to a 2003 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Individuals with CD are unable to eat foods that contain the protein gluten because of an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine. Currently the only solution for individuals suffering from CD is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. This means nothing that is made with wheat, spelt (an ancient form of wheat), barley, or rye because they contain the protein gluten.
If you are thinking, “That sucks!” You are right, it does! When I first discovered my wheat intolerance I thought my diet was rather restrictive but for a person suffering from CD it means a strict diet. I didn’t even know what gluten was when I first heard the word. I was surprised to learn that CD was first discovered in 250 A.D. by Aretaeus of Cappadocia as a bowel infliction or “koiliakos – suffering of the bowels”. Later in 1856, the name “celiacs” was termed (Celiac Sprue Association, 2009). However, celiac disease wasn’t linked to diet until 1888 by Dr. Samuel Gee of the United Kingdom. And then in 1952, Dr. Willem Karel Dicke, a Dutch pediatrician discovered that the disease was caused by eating proteins found in wheat.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in the endosperms of (wheat, barley, rye) grains and is primarily used in processed foods such as breads and pastas. However, it may also be used in medications (National Institutes of Health, 2008).
What happens to gluten in our bodies?
When food is digested, the proteins, fat and carbohydrates travel through the digestive tract to the small intestine for absorption. By the time the products reach the small intestine they have been broken down so that they may be absorbed through the intestinal lining. In most people, the protein gluten has no effect; however, in individuals with CD the body sees the protein gluten as an intruder and triggers an immune response.
In essence, for those suffering from CD their body sees the protein gluten as a virus and launches an attack to fend off the virus. It is similar to how our bodies fight infections.
When gluten passes through the intestinal lining, it appears to the individual with CD as an antigen. An antigen is a molecule that our body doesn’t like and therefore makes an antibody specifically to fight off and kill the antigen. This signals the body’s immune response and T-cells and B-cells specifically for gluten are released to rid the body of the infection. While the body is fighting the gluten invader, the villi of the small intestine (lining) are damaged. Damage to the villi leads to malabsorption of not only the protein gluten but all other proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Hence a strict gluten free diet.
CD is sometimes called a silent disease because it goes undiagnosed and has symptoms that are similiar to irritable bowl syndrome. Research is now showing connections between Celiac Disease and other auto-immune disorders such as type-1 diabetes and thyroid disorders. Additionally, an article in the Huffington Post discusses the affect gluten sensitivity has on the brain. In the article, Dr. David Pearlmutter talks about the amazing improvements he has seen in a child’s academic performance once the child was diagnosed and advised to go on a gluten-free diet.
Testing is a blood test performed by your doctor that determines if your body is making the antibodies for gluten. Harvard Health Letter has more information on this.
I see gluten everywhere
Gluten is ubiquitous in foods: pasta, cereal, pizza, breads, muffins, holiday cookies, etc. However, there are some great gluten-free alternatives and stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Safeway are starting to carry more gluten-free products.
Gluten free products are often made with alternative flours such as rice and potato. A favorite product of mine is Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix. I have made some delicious gluten free banana bread and even my favorite buttery melt in your mouth russian teacakes!
So while research continues and new discoveries found, I’ll still be cooking up my holiday favorites for family and friends. And experimenting with gluten-free alternatives so that I, too, may enjoy those prohibited sweets.
Having just spent time today in the grocery store searching the gluten free section for any better understanding of what it has to offer….your post today was the best Tabitha. I try to educate myself because my daughter in law went gluten free after a serious head injury last winter. But, I am new to this, so any info is helpful. I hope others will find what good you are doing here, you deserve a following……you really do!
Lynn @ I'll Have What She's Having says
I’ve done gluten intolerance tests. Thankfully I am not intolerant, but I understand how hard it is to find products that are gluten free. Grocery stores are starting to stock more gluten free products in my area, but it is still not easy. I found the best way to make sure I didn’t consume any gluten was to not eat any processed foods. That worked during a one month test, but long term its not very convenient.
Learning to bake without gluten is a challenge, but I’m sure with some experimenting you’ll find create delicious treats!
Molly Johnson says
I love Pamela’s products for baking. After going gluten free we were introduced to the original pancake house and I love the GF crepes and I know they use Pamelas. If anyone is looking for a good pasta, I have tried many different pastas,my favorite is Tinkyada. Some of them get mushy but Tinkyada holds up like regular pasta,is made out of brown rice, has great taste and texture. It is also the most economical brand.
Gail, thank you. I’m glad these posts are informative.
Lynn, yes baking is a challenge. I’m going to try a gluten free dinner roll for the holidays – I hope it turns out!
Molly, thanks for tip. I’ve tried quinoa pasta which is really good. I’ll look for Tinkyada the next time we are at the store.
Molly Johnson says
I too have made banana bread with rice flour and cannot tell the difference. I love Bobs Red mill GF all purpose flour made with rice flour. I made chocolate chip cookies and they were really good. One thing I have noticed though is I have to wait to eat them until completely cool because they will taste doughy. That seems to be the case with any desserts gluten free.(I am very impatient!!) I am always looking for GF recipes so if you have any to share I would appreciate it.
Janis Williams says
Great article Tabatha.
Much of this information was not new to me since I’ve been aware of the trials and tribulations of Celiac’s Disease for over a year now but it was very well researched and well written.
I am always on the look-out for gluten-free products and recipes – particularily dessert recipes since Bucky has a major sweet tooth.
The Pamela’s products are very good – especially the pancake flour. The Betty Crocker brownie, cookie and cake mixes are a good quick alternative although they high in sugar.
I have an excellent cookie recipe that I can pass on to you. It has chocolate chips, craisins, coconut, nuts and all sorts of yummy things. Except for the fact that it is a little more crumbly than a regular cookie, nothing about it screams “GLUTEN FREE”.
Keep up the good work.
Molly Johnson says
I would love the cookie recipe!
Janis Williams says
I will be glad to send it to you if you give me your email address.
Why don’t you send it to me and we can post it!
Janene Murphy says
Good article. I’ve got a friend who is allergic to gluten and, you’re right, it is really hard! I have a son on the autistic spectrum (Aspergers) and I’ve tried a lot of ‘natural’ things (no dyes, etc.) to see if that helps keep him balanced. The one thing I’ve yet to do because it’s SO hard is having him go gluten free. I hear it has helped some kids. He doesn’t have any normal symptoms to indicate an intolerance, so I’ve hesitated to try. I hope one day I muster the strength to try.
Janene, thank you. While going gluten-free is hard, I think the upside is a more balanced diet due to the increased fruits and vegetables. A good friend of mine runs an autism service for children and parents. She has told me that many of her clients have their children on special diets. However, please consult your doctor before going gluten-free. S/he may offer additional support and resources for you.
Have you tried almond flour? It makes really wonderful cookies, pancakes, muffins, even crackers. I think it tastes so much more like “normal” stuff, and it makes GF baking a lot less complicated!
Hi Jules, I do have some that I have yet to try. I’ve been craving some chocolate chip cookies so perhaps this afternoon… Have you made any breads? Did you have any problems with rising?