Ask pretty much everyone who reacts badly to gluten and they’ll probably be able to tell you a gastrointestinal horror story about a time they were accidentally ‘glutened’.
Its happened to us all, and it is really shitty (in every possible sense of the word).
Just a quick FYI: My intentions with this blog are to help people who eat vegan & gluten-free. This is not diet, health or nutrition advice. Go and see a qualified medical professional for that sh*t, take care of yourself, & see my full liability policy here.
Luckily for us, retailers and manufacturers have a legal responsibility to label ingredients and dishes containing gluten.
In the UK at least, gluten is recognised as one of the 14 major allergens and must, therefore, be clearly labelled and highlighted in ingredients lists – they’re usually in bold, ALL-CAPS or underlined.
It’s not completely fool-proof, but watching out for gluten on labels (in shops) and on allergen sheets (in restaurants) should help you to avoid most gluten disasters.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains, like wheat.
It makes up about 75-85% of the protein component of wheat, essentially providing the structure and elasticity of doughs used for things like bread, cakes, pasta, and really anything else made with wheat flour.
Why do people avoid gluten?
Unfortunately for people with coeliac’s disease, NCGS (non-coeliac gluten sensitivity) or gluten and wheat allergies, gluten can make us ill.
I’m not advocating for people to take up a gluten-free lifestyle, I just advocate eating in a way that feels good for you.
This isn’t diet advice, or health advice, or nutrition advice – go and see a qualified medical professional for that sh*t.
This is cooking & lifestyle advice. My aim for this blog is to help people who are struggling to eat and live gluten-free and plant-based and still eat tasty food.
Its the way I eat because it feels better for my body: when I eat gluten I get stomach cramps, bloating and headaches, so I choose to avoid it.
What does eating gluten-free mean?
Eating gluten-free means avoiding any products or foods that contain gluten. To be precise, foods containing less than 20ppm (parts per million) of gluten can be labelled gluten-free.
This includes the obvious: most regular bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits are made with wheat flour.
It also includes some less-obvious suspects. Often, something that seems like it ought to be gluten-free will contain small amounts of gluten.
For people just starting to eat gluten-free, the thought of reading packaging can be overwhelming. Even if you’re used to reading for non-vegan ingredients, the two are very different concerns.
While veganism is (generally) followed for moral, ethical or broad health concerns, a gluten-free diet is (generally) followed due to a specific health or medical reason – even people who go vegan for health reasons won’t (generally) become ill from accidentally eating a small about of animal product, whereas even a minuscule amount of gluten can make someone with coeliac’s, allergies or NCGS quite ill.
What to look for on labels when eating gluten-free
A really simple thing to look out for on labels is the crossed grain symbol – the symbol licenced by Coeliac UK to companies for use on products that meet specific gluten-free standards.
Though gluten is most commonly associated with wheat, there are other sources of gluten that you need to look out for.
Other cereals containing gluten include:
- Brewer’s Yeast
- Cracked wheat
- Khorasan or Kamut
- Wheat bran
- Wheat germ
- Wheat starch
This list was compiled both from my own knowledge and also with the help of some other resources which you might find useful, including Coeliac.org.uk, DrPerlmutter.com, Healthline.com and Celiac.org.
*Oats: There is some conflicting and confusing information about oats out there, but the official guidelines from Coeliac UK state that:
Most people with coeliac disease can eat gluten-free oats.
Many standard oats are produced in the same place as wheat, barley and rye, which makes them unsafe due to cross contamination.
A very small number of people are still sensitive to uncontaminated oats.
For anyone who cannot eat oats, they can often be substituted in recipes for naturally gluten-free grains and pseudo-grains, like rice, quinoa or buckwheat.
Gluten, particularly in the form of wheat flour, is such an affordable and ubiquitous part of our food culture that it can be hard to keep track of everything that could contain it.
Other foods to look out for that you wouldn’t necessarily think you contain gluten (at first glance), include:
- Soy Sauce (a staple in Southeast Asian cuisines, though you can get gluten-free soy sauce)
- Anything described as ‘breaded’ or ‘crunchy’ is often coated in breadcrumbs, batter or wheat flour before frying (explanation)
- You need to be wary of any deep-fried foods. Even if the actual dish doesn’t contain gluten, if it is cooked in a commercial fryer with foods that do contain gluten it will likely be heavily contaminated.
- Soups, dressings and sauces are often thickened with wheat flour
- Prepared ‘loose’ foods that come in packages (like pre-grated cheeses or frozen potato chips, for example) are often dusted with wheat flour to prevent clumping
- Spice mixes are sometimes bulked out or mixed with wheat flour
- Unfortunately for anyone following a plant-based lifestyle too, lots of vegan meat replacements contain – Seitan, in particular, is usually made from Vital Wheat Gluten
If you have coeliac’s or a serious allergy or intolerance, always double check the ingredients list, ask for an allergens sheet (on restaurants) and let people know that gluten could make you ill – and always have an emergency snack on-hand.