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November 12, 2010

Gluten = Poison (for some of us)

Following nearly two years of constant illness, I have finally been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance and grain allergy. This is good news and bad news, as it means I now have a way to keep myself healthy, and it also means that well-meaning people keep making me sick. As it becomes more and more common, particularly in North American diets, it’s becoming more and more necessary for everyone to understand what gluten intolerance means, and how to handle food safely for guests and loved ones. So – here is a list of “gluten rules” to make things clear.

INVISIBLE Gluten is microscopic, as it is part of the grain, not the grain itself. Therefore, you cannot tell whether it contains gluten simply by looking at it. Similarly, you also can’t taste it, smell it, or feel it. Don’t ever give food to someone with gluten intolerance, assuming that it’s ok because it looks ok.

VARYING RESPONSES People with gluten intolerances respond in different ways. For some, it is a gastro-based response: nausea, bloating, diarrhea, or indigestion. For others, it is a dermal response: itching, rashes, or painful hives. Others still have muscular-neural responses. Not everyone responds in the same way, so if you don’t see the “typical” response, don’t assume the person isn’t reacting; they may simply react in a way that is unfamiliar to you.

LABEL READERS People with any type of food allergy are label-readers. It is not enough to tell us what ingredients are in something; we need to know what ingredients are in the ingredients! For example, some types of “seasonings” or “salad dressing mixes” contain gluten starches (wheat starch being the most common), so simply saying “It has seasoning” does not help us out at all. Let us see the package, and read it thoroughly. *Note: not all companies list gluten in their allergy section the way they do nuts and milk. *Note: not all companies disclose the source of their ingredients. If something looks iffy or can’t be verified, it’s safer for someone gluten-free to just say “No thanks” and move on.

GLUTEN IS MORE THAN WHEAT Something that is labelled, “Wheat Free!” is not necessarily gluten-free. Gluten is a protein that is found in a few types of grain; wheat is one of those grains. (Other grains are rye, barley, triticale, and oats) Don’t give something “wheat free” to a gluten-free person and assume it is safe. “Wheat free” labelling is helpful for people with a wheat allergy, but a wheat allergy is different from a gluten allergy.

CROSS-CONTAMINATION Cross-contamination occurs when something that contains gluten touches something that would otherwise be gluten-free, thus rendering the originally gluten-free food no longer gluten-free. An example of this would be someone touching a piece of whole-wheat bread, and then touching a piece of fruit. The piece of fruit is now, technically, contaminated with gluten. Depending on the sensitivity of the person who eats that fruit, they may or may not respond to the gluten. It is easier than you think to avoid cross-contaminating someone:

1) Don’t touch their food. Don’t take something off their plate, don’t stick your hand into their bag of gluten-free pretzels, and don’t ask for a bite of their tasty-looking gluten-free cupcake.

2) If you must touch their food, (for instance in issues of preparing food) wash your hands thoroughly and dry with a clean paper towel. (Dish towels/common kitchen towels are probably already cross-contaminated.)

3) If you are preparing some foods that are gluten-free and some that aren’t, prepare the gluten-free foods FIRST, and the other foods SECOND.

4) Don’t re-use utensils, cooking sheets, counter spaces, etc, without a thorough cleaning first. (Again, it is better to prepare the gluten-free foods first to avoid this issue.)

5) Don’t stick your knife in the butter, peanut butter, creamed cheese, etc… use a spoon to get it out, and use a clean knife to put the condiment on your plate. From there, use your own knife to spread as you wish. It sounds like a lot of steps, but crumbs are nearly impossible to contain otherwise. (Another way around this is to have separate condiments for those who are gluten-free.)

DON’T BE OFFENDED Ultimately, even if people try their best to be helpful, sometimes they don’t realize the seriousness of the allergy and then there are too many variables to ensure safe food. Personally, if I am in that position and I can’t be sure that the food is ok, I will (politely) decline. If that hurts your feelings, I’m sorry, but too bad. I would rather jeopardise your feelings for a few moments than my health for the next two or three days, which is how long it takes me to recover from being glutened. I know you mean well, but I also know what will happen to my body if I’m not careful, and it’s just not worth it. If invited to something at your home, I will either eat first or bring my own snacks; it’s just easier that way.

BE KIND It’s not easy having a vastly different diet, and it’s not easy having to constantly worry about everything you eat. Personally, I don’t expect people to provide gluten-free food for me, but I do expect them to suck it up if I pass on the food they’ve offered, and I do expect them to give me a heads-up about what’s in their food, so I can make a safe choice for myself. As frustrating as it might be for you, it is ultimately more frustrating for the person with the allergy.  If it’s your birthday and you insist on going to a restaurant that can’t guarantee me safe food, don’t be upset when I either pass altogether or show up in time for drinks. It’s not that I don’t care about you; it’s that I care about my health more.

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