This is the article I wrote for my journalism class. Not quite the way I want it, but I think it’s got potential. I especially like that I found a way to write what I know about and about something that has a serious impact on me.
On a good day, the stomach cramps and bloating aren’t severe, but they’re still ever-present. You wake up in the morning feeling as though you haven’t gotten any sleep. You get up and stumble through your days wondering why you feel at least a little sick all the time.
After years, you finally go to a doctor that gets it. He refers you to a gastroenterologist who runs a battery of tests that you’re pretty sure is the prelude to your transformation into Jack Nicholson’s version of The Joker.
Final result: You’re gluten intolerant.
Gluten intolerance is a medical condition wherein an individual is unable to tolerate the presence of a protein called gluten in their diet. This protein is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats, as well as in their hybrids such as triticale. Gluten intolerance includes a wide range of disorders from simple wheat allergies to Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the presence of gluten causes the body’s white blood cells to attack the small intestines.
Joan Griffith, who has a degree in biochemistry, has operated Wildwood Bakehouse for 12 years now. The 100 percent gluten free restaurant began as a supplement to an art gallery located in Westlake. It is now operated as a restaurant, bakery and coffee house at the intersection of 31st Street and Guadalupe.
“About 20 percent of Americans are gluten intolerant or have Celiac Disease,” says Griffith. She and several of her family members suffer from gluten intolerance. What is her advice for people just starting a gluten free diet?
“You’ve heard of getting off the power grid. Well, get off the food grid,” she said.
Griffith suggested cooking using unprocessed foods exclusively when first beginning to exclude gluten from your diet. Unprocessed foods that don’t come from grains are naturally free of gluten and are an easy way to kick gluten out while you find alternatives to some of your favorite foods.
When asked what her biggest frustration is with eating gluten free, Austin resident Tammy Cox said, “That wheat is used so carelessly as a filler in prepared foods.”
Anyone that has faced the challenge of making the transition from the standard American diet knows that gluten can be particularly difficult to avoid. Reading the label on a package of food isn’t enough. You have to know what to look for.
Gluten comes disguised in a variety of ways.
Modified food starch, soy sauce, malt, and many liquids such as salad dressing and steak sauce also contain gluten. Those are just the day to day foods that most Americans take for granted. The real shockers come when gluten intolerant individuals realize they can’t have their favorite treats such as cinnamon rolls, Rice Crispies or even an oak aged shot of bourbon (on the rocks of course).
Add to that the expense of going gluten free.
When bought in five pound bags, white wheat flour costs an average of $1.08 per pound compared with a comparable gluten free flour blend which rings up at a prodigious $2.28 per pound. That comes out to an increase of 211 percent.
Gluten is also the element in baking that gives dough its stretchy texture. For gluten free baking it often has to be replaced with xanthan gum or other similar ingredients. So, in addition to the flour, gluten sensitive cooks also have to purchase xanthan gum, which runs about $8 for a half pound.
To further illustrate the point, look at a simple box of snack crackers. Whole Grain Wheat Thins cost $6.75 for a 20 ounce package at local grocery stores. Similar gluten free whole grain crackers cost about double that at $13.45 for a 20 ounce package.
How can one keep the price of a gluten free diet from putting them into bankruptcy?
Cooking at home making dishes that don’t rely on bread or pasta is the easiest way to go gluten free on the cheap. Meats, vegetables, fruits and raw gluten free grains such as rice are all fairly affordable without putting you at risk of gluten contamination.
“Cooking from scratch more saves money, for whatever reason you do it,” says Cox.
“I buy gluten free pasta and pizza on sale, and occasionally get a pre-made sauce or marinade that’s gluten free,” said Cox.
Don’t make your own bread and baked goods said Griffith. The cost of the flours is really burdensome and unless you’ve got a lot of training and experience baking gluten free foods, the product just isn’t going to turn out well. Instead buy breads and other baked goods from a store or dedicated gluten free bakery.
“(Businesses) can buy ingredients in bulk, and that means savings,” Griffith said.
What about nights out with family and friends? How do you avoid food that has been contaminated with gluten?
Recently, a lot of restaurants have begun offering gluten free menus for customers. PF Chang’s China Bistro, Mama Fu’s Asian House, BJ’s Brewhouse, Applebee’s, Mr. Gatti’s Pizza and Thundercloud Subs all have gluten free options, to name just a few.
However, it is important to note that gluten free isn’t necessarily gluten free. In order to be considered gluten free, the Food and Drug Administration requires that foods contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten before it is deemed safe for consumption by someone with Celiac Disease.
That is a very strict standard, but a necessary one. Even the mildest cross-contamination can cause some gluten sensitive people to become ill. Restaurants have to be very careful to avoid an overlap of food preparation that might harm their customers.
“We’re very careful,” says PF Chang’s manager Cesar Mareno. “Our gluten free station has separate woks and utensils and the surfaces are never used to prepare anything that isn’t gluten free.”
Unfortunately, that standard isn’t strictly enforced at many restaurants either due to simple ignorance or blatant disbelief that gluten intolerance really is a problem. Many people think that gluten free eating is just another fad diet, so restaurant staff may not feel overly concerned about ensuring that cross contamination does not occur.
In fact, gluten intolerance is a very serious problem for many people. Symptoms experienced after accidentally consuming gluten include severe abdominal spasms, vomiting, painful bloating, fatigue, inability to focus, and other more serious health problems, depending on the cause of the gluten sensitivity.
The best means of preventing accidental ingestion of gluten is to ask good questions and communicate very clearly with restaurant staff. People with gluten intolerance are often sick for days after consuming a very tiny amount of gluten. Communicating your needs and concerns to staff will ensure that they put your order in correctly, informing the kitchen that there’s a health issue involved.
Fortunately, Austin has a large community of gluten free supporters. HEB offers a listing of hundreds of gluten free items that its stores carry on its website and gluten free foods are clearly marked by a brown tag with a crossed out sheaf of wheat on them.
Whole Foods has a listing as well, but also supplements that with their Gluten Free Bakehouse, a 100 percent gluten free bakery located in Morrissville, North Carolina and operated by Whole Foods that you can special order products from.
For most, the switch to a gluten free diet will be beneficial even if they aren’t gluten intolerant. Many people sleep better and are better able to focus.
“After working here for a while I tried gluten free,” said Wildwood Bakehouse assistant manager Nick Blaze who does not have gluten sensitivity. “I found that I slept better. I woke up with a little more energy. I just felt less weighed down (from) trying to process all that gluten.”
If you are experiencing symptoms you suspect are gluten related, you should make sure to consult your physician. Your doctor may draw blood to check for antibodies which are an indicator of Celiac Disease, conduct a food allergy panel or refer you to a gastroenterologist. Regardless of the results of those tests, rest assured that you live in a place that has a strong gluten free community.