“Gluten Free”?

As I have mentioned before, I have Celiac Disease.  Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s system is, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “hypersensitive to gluten”.  The word “celiac” comes from the Greek word κοιλία (kee-LEE-a), which means “belly” or “abdomen”.  The smallest speck of gluten will cause the victim’s small intestine to basically “shut down” and not do its job in absorbing nutrients.  So even if the victim keeps eating well, as long as there is gluten in his or her system, he or she will have a hard time getting nourished.  (I’m no doctor, and I’m not well educated in all things medical; all this info I provide comes from personal experience and a little bit of research done via Google.)  Besides the malabsorption of nutrients, exposure to gluten often results in extreme abdominal discomfort, and can also cause fatigue, weight loss (the bad kind), digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and the list goes on.  It is a lifelong condition; it cannot be outgrown.  There is no medication or procedure to cure Celiac Disease; the only thing that can be done is to eliminate gluten from one’s diet (forever) and let the small intestine heal.  The process of healing can take up to 2 years (or more).  This is a serious intolerance we’re talking about here.  Cheating is out of the question.  So is even hanging out in an atmosphere in which flour is present.  It’s that serious.

When I was diagnosed, there weren’t very many gluten free products on the market, and the ones that did exist mostly tasted rather like sawdust and had a texture reminiscent of cardboard.  Over the years, however, Celiac Disease became more common, and consequently, the gluten free product market grew.  Companies found ways to make gluten free bread actually taste remotely like actual bread, and you get the picture.  There were baked goods that said “made in a dedicated gluten-free bakery”, and you knew that you could eat it and not worry about getting “glutenized”.

Over time I’ve watched the gluten free diet increase in popularity; not just among celiacs, but also among non-celiacs who decide to avoid gluten, whether to ease the effects of various diseases, or simply because not eating gluten made them feel better.  Due to the increased commonness of eating gluten free, many companies, such as General Mills, Nabisco, and many others that are known for their very glutenous products, continue to come up with all sorts of items that say in big letters, “GLUTEN FREE!!!” on the packaging.  For the people who eat gluten-free but don’t have Celiac Disease, this is good news.  (FREEDOM!)  However, those who do have Celiac Disease should take any claims that something is “gluten free” with a grain of salt, keeping in mind the possibility of cross-contamination.  Many products that proudly say “gluten free” right on the front still say in very small letters, below the ingredient list:  “Made on equipment shared with wheat.”  For many (not all, but many) of those who eat gluten free but are not celiacs, cross-contamination isn’t really an issue.  Oh, the waiter put croutons on my salad when I asked him not to?  No big deal, I can pick them off.  Not so for celiacs.  Waiter, could I have a new salad please, with NO croutons?  And can you get me a new plate, and have it washed VERY well first, please?  (Or should I even be eating out?  Maybe I should have brought my own lunch.)  

For those with Celiac Disease, cross-contamination is a huge deal.  You see, there is a huge difference between an item being “gluten free” vs. “no gluten ingredients used”.  “Gluten free” is supposed to mean “this product is completely free of gluten”, while “no gluten ingredients used” often means “this product does not contain any gluten ingredients”.  However, the latter description doesn’t always necessarily mean that the product is totally free of gluten.  How careful were the makers of this cookie in making sure that there is no gluten in it?  While people who are not celiac can feel free to eat anything that says “gluten free” and “made on equipment shared with wheat”, many unaware celiacs might be not be thinking about cross-contamination, eating these products and quite possibly poisoning themselves without knowing it.  It doesn’t just depend on the ingredients that go into the recipe, but also the procedures used to make it, as well as the “gluten free-ness” of the utensils/kitchen/equipment/facility in which the recipe was made.  Otherwise, the product is not technically gluten free, but rather befits the status of “no gluten ingredients used”.  However, I think some companies don’t really know the difference.

The purpose of this post is not to complain about everything I can’t eat because of confusing labeling.  Rather, I’m saying this as a warning to those who have Celiac Disease, particularly those who are new to the whole thing and still trying to figure out what they can and can’t have (and to whoever has never really put much thought to cross-contamination before – it took me years before I actually realized the seriousness of cross-contaimination!); also to the people who try to love their celiac friends and relatives by buying gluten free snacks for them:

Even though a product says “gluten free”, be sure to check below the ingredients list to see if it has a warning concerning the facility and/or procedures.  As long as it does not say “made on equipment shared with [wheat, oats, barley, rye, spelt, etc.]” or “made in a facility that also processes [aforementioned items]”, it should be fine.  And when in doubt, contact the company, or look the product up on one of those Celiac websites.  If still in doubt, don’t eat it.  You’ll save yourself a real pain in the κοιλία.

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