How to Eat Simple, Good, Gluten-Free, and Tasty

For a fortunate few, eating gluten-free is simply a choice. For others it's a difficult lifestyle change once they've been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, which can ranging from a mild sensitivity to full-blown celiac disease.

A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy. In a food allergy, your body reacts to the food you've ingested with a physical reaction, such as hives, sneezing, or a closing of the airways. With a food intolerance, symptoms can be delayed and are more subtle; essentially, your body is unable to digest the particular food, which causes antibodies to form in the blood, and the intestinal villi to flatten. This causes indigestion, abdominal pain, and weight gain/loss. But other, more serious symptoms have also been tied to gluten intolerance, such as infertility, diabetes and thyroid problems.

Ten years ago, according to a recent article in the New York Times, one person in 10,000 was estimated to be gluten intolerant. Today, 1 in 133 people has been diagnosed with gluten intolerance. And yet the National Institute of Health reports up to 95 percent of those with the disease remain undiagnosed, which translates to about 1 in 6 people.

It's unclear if the rise of gluten intolerance in the population is due to increased awareness, more accurate testing, or an actual increase in gluten intolerance. Additionally, some studies have shown the benefit of a gluten-free diet for other symptoms -- and a gluten-free diet is another way to trim carbohydrates -- so it's become a diet choice even for those who aren't gluten intolerant.

Learning to avoid gluten is the first step in going gluten free. It's a skill, and becomes easier with practice. There's hidden gluten in many foods, like soy sauce, and even many flourless chocolate cakes. Read labels, educate yourself, and ask questions at restaurants. The good news is the increased demand for gluten-free food items has pushed the marketplace to increase supplies. In 2003, 236 gluten-free food products were introduced on the market. Compare this to 832 gluten-free products in 2008. It's a greater than threefold increase.

But even with the marketplace flooded with new gluten-free products, is it possible to still eat gluten-free foods that are whole, sustainable, local and organic? As the demand for good-tasting and well-textured gluten free products rises, so does the supply of gluten-free processed foods. And since gluten-free foods are often imitating gluten-full foods, the ingredient list grows longer and more complex. The foods become less whole, and more processed. Gluten-free grocery items are often not local, not organic, and very, very processed.

Consider the ingredient list for Glutino's Gluten Free Pretzels: corn starch, potato starch, palm oil, sugar, sea salt, carboxymethyl cellulose, soy lecithin, sodium bicarbonate, yeast, sodium phosphate, citric acid, sodium hydroxide.

Compare this to the ingredients in gluten-containing Snyder's of Hanovers Organic Oat Bran Pretzel Sticks: organic wheat flour, water, organic oat flour and oat bran, organic evaporated cane juice, salt, yeast, sodium bicarbonate.

So are gluten-free and local/organic/sustainable incompatible? Not necessarily. By eating minimally processed foods, and by making non-local, non-organic gluten-free items a smaller percentage of what you eat, you can take gluten free to the next level.

The simplest way to eat gluten-free is to eat foods that are naturally so, like fruits and vegetables. During the summer, buy a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) share in a local farm, and receive weekly boxes of local, organic produce. During the winter, take advantage of root vegetables from farms like Harmony Valley, hydroponic lettuces from Living Water Farm in Wells, MN; and the excellent organic, local frozen products by Sno-Pac in Caledonia, MN, recently profiled in the City Pages.

Milk and dairy are also naturally gluten free. Dairy products from Organic Valley, Cedar Summit, Hope Creamery and others are local, organic, AND gluten free. Formerly, blue cheese was cautioned against for those with celiac disease. Yet a recent study by the Canadian Celiac Association found that even when the molds for blue cheese were grown on gluten-containing foods, the resulting cheese had negligible gluten. So you can enjoy veined cheeses like Shepherds Way award-winning Big Woods Blue.

Meat, nuts, eggs and legumes are naturally gluten free, so getting enough protein is not a problem on a local and gluten-free diet. Try eggs from Larry Schultz's farm, nuts distributed by the Bergin Nut Company, pork from Pastures a Plenty, beef from Thousand Acres, chicken from Kadejan Farms, sliced meats from Organic Prairie, and dried beans from Whole Grain Milling Company.

Finding alternative grains is the most challenging requirement of a gluten-free diet. For local ones, try corn and rice. A local source of local grains and grain products, many of which are gluten free, is the Whole Grain Milling Company in Welcome, Minnesota. Their yellow and blue corn chips are local, organic, AND gluten free, as is the wild rice from Moose Lake Wild Rice in Deer River, MN.

Eating gluten free means avoiding foods that contain wheat gluten, such as rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and triticale wheat. Many products  are labeled wheat free, but they contain rye or barley, both of which are related to wheat that contain gluten.

Buckwheat is especially confusing. In spite of its name, it's actually not wheat; it's from a flower. And in its pure form, it's gluten free. But when it's processed into flour, to make bread and other grain-based products, it's often combined with wheat flour. Further, it's often grown with wheat, so cross contamination is a possibility. Oats are similar. They are also gluten free, except that oats and wheat also are often raised and processed close to each other, so cross contamination is a possibility. Those who are scrupulous about eschewing gluten sometimes avoid oats and buckwheat because of this -- a difficult omission, since they are a whole, local and nutritious grain, and often organic.

There are a variety of gluten-free flours easily available in supermarkets. They aren't always able to be substituted cup for cup for wheat flour as they will produce a different texture and taste. Mixtures of several types of flours produce the best baking results, like Bob's Red Mill All-Purpose Gluten-Free flour, which is a mix of potato starch, garbanzo, tapioca, sorghum and fava flours. Most gluten-free baked goods benefit from the addition of xanthan gum, a fermented corn product. The rule of thumb is ½ teaspoon xanthan gum for every one cup of gluten-free flour for baked goods like cakes and cookies. Bob's Red Mill is from Oregon. Another reliable supplier of gluten-free flours is Arrowhead Mills, a division of Hain Celestial, headquartered in New York.

I haven't found any local producers of gluten-free flour or xanthan gum. But there are local gluten-free bakeries, like Madwoman Foods, Bittersweet and Cooqi. Plus, the Twin Cities area food co-ops offer an expanded selection of freshly made, gluten-free baked goods. Even if the ingredients aren't all local, the items are good, good-for-you, local, organic and gluten free.

Here's a gluten-free, as-local-as-possible version of an award-winning brownie recipe from Baked bakery in New York City. This is a sweet, satisfying treat that shows that giving up gluten doesn't mean giving up fabulous baked goods.

The Baked Brownie, Gluten Free
adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Makes 16 brownies

  • 1¼ cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon xanthan gum
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons Dutch cocoa powder
  • 11 ounces coarsely chopped dark (60 percent) chocolate (local from Rogue Chocolatier)
  • 2 sticks Hope Creamery unsalted butter, plus more to grease pan
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 1½ cup granulated cane sugar
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 5 large Larry Schultz eggs, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

Butter sides and bottom of a glass or light-colored metal 9" x 13" pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, xanthan gum, salt, cocoa powder.

Configure a double boiler. (Fill a medium saucepan with two inches of water and fit a metal bowl on top without letting it touch water; bring water to a boil.)

Place chocolate, butter and espresso powder in bowl and stir occasionally until completely melted and combined, about 6 minutes.

Turn off heat, but keep bowl over water and add both sugars.

Whisk until completely combined and remove bowl from pan. Let stand until room temperature, about 20 minutes.

Add 3 eggs to chocolate-butter mixture and whisk until just combined.

Add remaining eggs and whisk until combined.

Add vanilla and stir to combine. (Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or the brownies will be cakey.)

Sprinkle flour-cocoa mixture over chocolate mixture. Using a spatula (do not use a whisk!), fold the dry ingredients into the wet until there is just a trace amount of the flour-cocoa mix visible.

Pour batter into the greased pan and smooth the top with the spatula.

Bake brownies for 27 to 30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Brownies are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.

Cool brownies completely before cutting and serving.

Serve with local, organic ice cream, such as Izzy's, Sonny's, or Cedar Summit.

Kristin J. Boldon
lives in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband and two sons. She grew up in Central Ohio, but moved to Minnesota in 1998 from the east coast. (We're glad she stayed!) Kristin has a B.S. in Business from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Religion from Temple. In her so-called spare time, she cooks, bakes, practices yoga, reads, and writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, and for her own blog Girl Detective.