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So, what is gluten anyway?

November 22, 2011

I get this one a lot, usually followed up by a hail of questions about individual foods. Can you eat French fries? What about rice? Is soup okay? How about chicken? These questions might sound kind of silly, but I appreciate them, (especially when it means someone’s in the midst of making food for me). The answer is: “It’s complicated.”

There are really only four main grains that contain gluten: wheat, barley, rye, and oats*. It’s disarmingly simple, and most people get a little embarrassed when I tell them, since it’s relatively easy to memorize. I get a lot of sympathetic noises and horrified exclamations (“You can’t eat CAKE?!”) after that, and then everyone goes on their merry way. Sort of.

Foods these days are complicated and most people don’t really know – or care to think about – what goes into them, besides in obvious, simple foods such as cookies or breads. Early on in my gluten-free forays, I ended up mistakenly eating a lot of gluten-containing foods; clearly I didn’t just walk into a bakery and start scarfing down the kaiser rolls, but since I’d never had to examine just what was in a lot of my favourite foods before, I ended up accidentally making myself sick a lot.

To illustrate: when was the last time you checked if your Smarties had wheat flour in it? How about that gravy? Granola bars? Obviously any sort of pastry is out. Hmm, no stuffing at Thanksgiving. Crap, these sweet potato fries were dusted in flour. And so on.

More and more, I’ve found myself wondering not “what is gluten?” but “where is the gluten?” It’s been my main issue for a while (especially while I was in Japan, hello Lost in Translation), but I’ve found that while you have to spend a bit of time looking at labels, you save a whole lot of money if you know what to avoid.


*Oats are currently under heavy debate. You can buy certified gluten-free oats, but them’s expensive, and regular oats have been proven to contain trace amounts of gluten, whether it’s due to contamination, or being an integral part of the oats themselves. Jury’s still out on that one.

**If you want a more in-depth look at the “what is celiac/gluten-free” question, refer to this handy article over on Wikipedia, or the Canadian Celiac Association website.

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