To Be or Not to Be Gluten Free

By wholefood cook Jude Blereau

By wholefood cook Jude Blereau

Allergies are becoming far more prevalent than ever and everywhere I go I am hearing people say to me they are gluten intolerant. Indeed, gluten free is the new 'in' trend, with the perception that because a food is gluten free, it is healthy.

I don't think people are always intolerant to gluten, but rather are showing the symptoms of poor gut ecology, an exhausted digestive system from too many processed and difficult to digest foods, poor eating habits, and a poor understanding of how to prepare grains for optimal digestion.

Grains are some of the most difficult foods for humans to digest, with the particular protein in wheat among the most difficult. What is important to understand is that this is only compounded with an immature (young children) or an adult's compromised digestive system (poor gut ecology, sickness, ageing) with the resulting problems ranging from bloating to a general allergic response.

Shifting to other grains that are not wheat can help alleviate this problem. Thus other gluten grains such as barley, oats, rye or spelt may be easier to digest; of these, spelt and oats are the most water-soluble. Such individuals will also be able to tolerate the gluten free grains, amaranth, buckwheat, corn (maize), millet, quinoa and rice. Some can tolerate oats when they are certified free from gluten contamination, but the idea that there is such a thing as a true gluten free oat is hotly debated. Still, I am of the belief, that if you truly are coeliac (and have been diagnosed), you should avoid them.

There are many other primary and essential ways to aid the body in the way it digests food, including those containing gluten:

Eat real food: It is this, which the body understands, smells and responds to.Eat whole, real and unprocessed foods: Raw, whole milk or whole grains for example, are easier to digest than processed and fractionalised foods. Refined foods, especially white flour and white sugar, actually remove valuable nutrients from the body in order to be digested.Introduce and use lacto fermented foods for beneficial bacteria: You're probably hearing a lot about probiotics these days and how good they are for you. Well, lacto fermented or cultured foods are the original probiotics, providing an abundance of beneficial bacteria. A good gut ecology with an abundance of these beneficial bacteria and yeasts is a critical part of the digestive process. Some examples of these include yoghurt, kefir, cheese, kombucha and pickled vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchee.Serve lacto fermented foods to aid digestion: A little sour cream or yoghurt, or cultured vegetables with a meal goes a long way towards helping heavier foods like meats, legumes and whole grains be digested.Reduce your reliance on grain (especially bread): It can be a difficult thing to digest and this is one of the reasons so many people have problems with it.Use the 'softer' and easier to digest grains such as hulled millet, oats, rice, quinoa and amaranth. The high protein /low carb 'grains' quinoa and amaranth are particularly wonderful.Where possible, soak all grain use: Soaking delivers huge benefits to grain which all contain phytic acid in the outer layer or bran and enzymes that inhibit digestion. As little as seven hours of soaking in water at room temperature with some acid (lemon juice, vinegar, whey, buttermilk, yoghurt or kefir) encourages lactobacilli and other helpful organisms to break these down. Another huge benefit is that lactobacilli break down gluten and other difficult to digest proteins, and in effect, pre digest the protein.Once soaked, cook the grain in a bone stock.Where possible, bread should be sourdough, or made from sprouted grain or sprouted grain flour. Sourdough leavening, is ultimately a process of lacto fermentation, and will provide similar benefits to the grain flour as described above.Include coconut oil, cream and milk liberally. Coconut is one of the gut's best friends as its short and medium chain fatty acids can help promote the beneficial bacteria in the gut.Go carefully with soy products which can be very difficult to digest.Support the digestive process with bone stocks: for example, cooking grains in stock. Use real salt which aids digestion. I like the Celtic Sea Salt.

For some, this will be enough. For others, they will not be able to tolerate any gluten at all. There are varying degrees of intolerance to gluten, from those who simply find it incredibly difficult to digest (generally because they have a poor digestive system) to Coeliac Disease, where gluten triggers an autoimmune response, damaging the stomach. In both cases, all gluten containing grains should be avoided.

There's a lot of confusion about wheat free diets and gluten free diets - they are not necessarily the same thing. As you can see from the above, some people just need to avoid the particular gluten found in wheat, and they will be fine. On a gluten free diet they will need to avoid all gluten grains. Thus something labelled 'wheat free' may not necessarily be gluten free and labelling something 'wheat and gluten free' is silly - you may as well just say 'gluten free'.

The other aspect I'd like to discuss here is if you or your child is gluten intolerant, be careful what you choose to replace it. Baking with gluten free grain flours is tricky - they don't really like to stick together. Thus most gluten free pasta, noodles, pastry, cakes or biscuits are made from highly, highly refined starches and gums (gums are a big no no). Potato, rice, tapioca and corn starches are all very popular for gluten free baking. They give a lovely light end result, but cast your mind back to when you were a child and mixed a white starch with water - you got glue. These highly refined starches will do the same thing in your stomach and compound the problem by breaking down to sugars too quickly, and feeding bad bacteria. They have their place, but you are much better off trying to avoid them as much as possible and, instead, becoming comfortable with using the gluten free whole grains described above and their flours. Give my gluten free muffin a try out in your kitchen this month. I hope you enjoy it.

See Jude's recipe archive at www.novamagazine.com.au - Recipes