Last Wednesday, Allergic to Food made mention of the recent estimates that 1 in every 133 Americans suffers from some kind of gluten sensitivity. Statistically speaking, this means that it is highly likely somebody at Christmas dinner won't be eating the gluten. Experience tells me that at dinner gatherings, not eating something always leads to two major questions from the people around you.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/ - Jen Christiansen/JupiterImages
In my opinion, neither of these questions has the necessary qualities to make good holiday meal conversation. But they are reasonable questions, and they deserve answers. Therefore, in order to keep you from asking uncomfortably personal questions of your family at dinner this year, without asking you to sacrifice your curiosity, the second half of Food Allergies Take a Holiday is here dedicated to things you should not ask at dinner.
What's a gluten?
The most frequent question I hear when passing up food is, "What's a gluten?" While there's nothing inherently wrong with this question, it often leads into a death spiral of technicalities and qualifications, and eventually ends up at the exceptionally annoying question (in some variation) "Can you eat anything?"
Very simply stated, "gluten" is a protein found in several common grains, most familiarly: wheat. It's a key element in making the dough for the Christmas dinner rolls rise, and giving it enough elasticity to survive being rolled out. Gluten and wheat are not the same thing. Rather, gluten is one of the components in wheat that makes wheat flour so ideal for cooking. The origin of the word literally means, "glue" - gluten is the stuff that holds baked goods together.
The first batch of gluten free cookies I ever made turned out looking more like swiss cheese than cookies. That was a depressing, but brilliant turning point in my life, at which moment I suddenly understood that baking was nothing more than chemistry put into action, and that the reason wheat flour worked was not because it was flour, but because it was flour with all the ideal ratios between carbohydrate and protein content, etc. When you bake gluten free, you "simply" have to find ways other than gluten to balance the ratios in flours you're working with.
But typically, I find that when people ask the question "What's a gluten?" they have no desire to get a science lesson about grains. Typically, what people mean seems to be, "What has gluten in it?" And that's a problem, because the answer to the question is a bit convoluted. We here in the U.S., one of our major crops being wheat, have managed to sneak gluten into just about everything you can imagine; the list of sources is mind-numbingly long, and full of challenging details. The most accessible breakdown I can offer is to say that the following foods, as well as anything derived from them, need to be left out of a gluten free diet: all wheat (durum, semolina, kamut, spelt), barley, rye, triticale, and in most instances, oats. The implications of this can feel a little vast. Anything with "Modified Food Starch," for example, is suspect (usually wheat). Anything with Hydrolized Vegetable Protein in it is definitely out. Imitation meats, a lot of deli meats, turkey that has been "plumped," anything with a sauce or marinade, almost anything involving soy sauce, most soups, almost all breadings, and the most tragic of all: beer.
http://www.trekearth.com user Paul57 captures one of Washington's many wheat fields nearing harvest.
You can see why a gluten free diet is challenging, and why so many wonderful people have started putting effort into raising both awareness and alternative options for food worth eating. Which brings us to the second question you should avoid asking during Christmas dinner...
"What happens if you eat gluten?"
Friends, let me tell you. You don't want the answer to this question. You probably don't want it now, but you really don't want it at the dinner table. Which is not to say that the answer is the same for everyone. In fact, everyone seems to react differently, although people more or less fall into one of two major categories.
1. Celiac Disease, which is a genetic autoimmune disorder, in which the body reacts to an introduction of gluten by essentially attacking itself, being unable to distinguish correctly between what is causing an upset and what is getting upset. The result of this is that the lining of the stomach and small intestine are damaged. In severe cases, the reaction can be similar to food poisoning or a chronic illness such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
2. Gluten Intolerance, which is a different disorder, sometimes less severe, and extremely varied in symptoms. In this, the body is unable to breakdown and process gluten, much as a person with a lactose intolerance experiences when drinking milk. Ultimately, though, the result of an ignored gluten intolerance is the same as the result of ignored Celiac Disease: damage to the intestines prevents the body from absorbing nutrients, which causes a culmination of other symptoms related to malnutrition.
The exact process of how a person reacts to gluten is not something you want at the dinner table any more than you want to invite a detailed discussion of flu symptoms. Although, in my own case, the initial clue that I've had gluten is often just funny to other people, since I become hyper emotional due to instant exhaustion and malaise. (One good hallmark commercial and a mini-doughnut is all it takes to put me out of commission for a couple of hours.) But things like vomiting are far more common initial symptoms, so just don't risk the conversation.
If you're hosting Christmas dinner this year, and have gluten free guests who will be attending, the best thing you can do to make things easier on yourself and on them is to first, save any and all packaging with ingredient lists - because they already know what they can and can't eat, and you won't have to try to figure it out. And then second, make certain that - as much as is possible - packaged seasonings are optional for them. (For example, if you're serving a salad, take some out and set it aside before adding the dressing.) If it's possible to give them a copy of the menu ahead of time, do so, and be willing to let them bring supplemental items for themselves (such as gluten free rolls, etc.)
When in doubt about an ingredient, ask; do not sneak it in hopes that it's ok and nobody will notice. And if you have something you want to make which usually calls for a small amount of flour, such as a gravy, look up alternatives online. You'll be amazed by the recipe resources that are becoming available.