Much like the the concept of veganism, the term “gluten-free” once represented a rare and widely-misunderstood category of food. But thanks to growing awareness of celiac disease, gluten-free foods have gone thoroughly mainstream. All over the world, there are now gluten-free bakeries, and gluten-free food products of every sort.
Gluten is a protein present in many grains. It’s especially abundant in wheat. If you’ve ever kneaded bread, you’ve probably noticed that the dough becomes stretchier over the course of the kneading. This texture change happens as the strands of gluten lengthen as the dough stretches out during kneading. The fact that bread is chewy rather than crumbly has everything to do with the gluten it contains. As a corollary, this is also why ineptly-formulated gluten-free baked goods seem like the handiwork of the devil.
Gluten isn’t just common in baked goods, it’s also widespread in vegan meats. Many vegan meats rely on seitan as their main ingredient. Seitan is pure gluten (plus some water, salt, and spices), and it’s what gives these products their meaty chewiness.
Gluten and Celiac Disease
Unfortunately, for some people, gluten plays havoc with the digestive system. This is especially true of people diagnosed with Celiac disease, who should basically treat gluten as if it’s poison and avoid even the tiniest amounts. For celiacs, any gluten consumption produces an allergic response that inflames the intestines and bowels. With repeated exposure to gluten, the lining of these organs will break down causing all manner of serious and potentially life-threatening consequences.
Like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder—meaning that the body is attacked by its own immune system. But if you’re going suffer the misfortune of contracting an autoimmune disorder, celiac disease might be the best one to have, since all you need to do to avoid symptoms is to banish all traces of gluten from your diet. And while that’s certainly a drag, it’s far from the worst tribulation inflicted on humankind.
Celiac disease is notoriously under-diagnosed. Up to 90 percent of people suffering from this condition don’t know they have it. Sometime around 2010, large numbers of people started getting the idea that maybe they’re gluten-sensitive. There’s no doubt that the resultant mass-experiment with gluten-free eating led to a number of undiagnosed celiacs cutting gluten from their diets, and consequently experiencing vast improvements to their health. But at the same time, only about one percent of people actually have celiac disease, so the overwhelming majority of people participating in the gluten-free craze have likely experienced little or nothing in the way of health benefits.
That said, gluten is certainly one of the harder food ingredients to digest. People with digestive problems may well feel better if they consume cut back on gluten, even if they don’t suffer from celiac disease. And there’s always the placebo effect to take into account—certainly some people who get rid of gluten and claim their health has improved actually have no measurable sensitivity to gluten.
Even though the gluten-free boom was at least partially driven by misunderstanding, it resulted in the introduction of some fantastic gluten-free products. And these products have greatly benefited everyone who is gluten intolerant.
How to Eat Gluten-Free
Transitioning to a gluten-free diet is remarkably easy. Mainly, you must pay attention to grain-based ingredients, since many grains contain gluten. Here are some common gluten-free grains, which celiacs can eat to their heart’s content:
- wild rice
Conversely, the main grains for gluten-sensitive people to watch out for are wheat, barley, bulger, triticale, mir, and rye. Barley’s presence on this list is bad news for beer-lovers, since barley (specifically, malt derived from barley) is an ingredient in most beers. But because gluten-free diets have recently become so popular, some breweries are now producing gluten-free beer, and several of these offerings are surprisingly good.
Note that many celiacs react to even trace amounts of gluten, so that can mean being strict about only purchasing food from facilities that don’t process wheat or other gluten-containing grains.
Gluten-Free Vegan Cookbooks
If you want to avoid gluten, there’s really no need to limit yourself when you’re cookbook shopping, since most cookbooks (apart from titles specifically devoted to baking) contain relatively few recipes featuring gluten-containing grains or seitan.
But if you are looking for gluten-free alternatives to recipes that typically contain these grains, you’re in luck. Allyson Kramer has written four cookbooks that cater to vegans who follow a gluten-free diet:
- Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats
- Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats From Around the World
- Naturally Lean
- Sweet Eats for All
Apart from the recipes themselves, Allyson’s cookbooks offer extensive information about living a gluten-free lifestyle that goes far beyond the scope of this short guide.
There are several of other gluten-free vegan cookbooks on the market. Some recent titles:
- Decadent Gluten-Free Vegan Baking, by Cara Reed
- Gluten-Free & Vegan for the Whole Family, by Jennifer Katzinger
- The Gluten-Free Vegan, by Susan O’Brien
Gluten-Free Vegan Packaged Foods
Years ago, few packaged foods were gluten-free and vegan, but those days are long gone. An ever-growing number of gluten-free vegan products are hitting the shelves in grocery stores. Here are a few excellent products you’ll want to try:
- Tofurky Gluten-Free Pizza (3 Varieties)
- Whoopie pies from The Piping Gourmet
- Gluten-free pasta
- Gratify pretzel sticks
- Nana’s no gluten cookies
- Annie’s gluten-free bunny cookies
You can find countless more gluten-free items at your local grocery store or Whole Foods Market.