Giving up gluten is no longer relegated to people with celiac disease, a condition characterized by the inability to digest this problematic protein. "There are a lot of people suffering with all kinds of gluten sensitivities, in such a variety that we don't fully understand," says Arthur Agatston, MD, author of the South Beach Diet Gluten Solution and the forthcoming South Beach Diet Gluten Solution Cookbook.
Research has linked gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (wheat-rye hybrid), to a variety of autoimmune conditions ranging from psoriasis to arthritis to just general fatigue and lack of energy. "I think anybody with a chronic medical condition should go off gluten for a month to see if they feel better," he adds.
The problem is, processed foods have so overtaken our lives that avoiding gluten can be really difficult, given that it appears in dozens, if not hundreds, of fillers, thickeners, emulsifiers, and other food-processing aids. Due to federal food-labeling laws, manufacturers of any product that contains wheat, a potential allergen, are required to call out wheat-based ingredients so that, with careful label reading, wheat-based sources of gluten can be avoided. But the same doesn't hold true for barley or rye, which are the source of gluten in many processed foods. So uncovering those can require a little sleuthing. If you're trying to avoid gluten, pay particular attention to the following products, which could easily wreck a gluten-free diet.
Sneaky gluten source: flour, particularly in sprays marketed for baking. It's added to boost a spray's ability to keep food from sticking.
Use this instead: Stick with organic or grass-fed butter or oils in glass bottles to avoid both the wheat and the hormone-disrupting bisphenol A, which is used to line cans containing food products.
Sneaky gluten source: imitation crabmeat, which contains wheat starch and other gluten-containing fillers, and soy sauce, which contains wheat as a thickener.
Use this instead: Stick with real sustainable fish varieties, such as wild Alaskan salmon or farmed Arctic char; download the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Guide to Sustainable Sushi to identify non-imitation fish that are not overfished and are free of contaminants. Or, stick with vegetarian sushi. The nonprofit Oceana has found that seafood fraud runs rampant at sushi restaurants. In both cases, ask for tamari soy sauce, which is wheat free, says Marie Almon, South Beach Diet nutrition director.
Sneaky gluten source: gluten-containing fillers that may be listed as "starch" or "modified food starch."
Use this instead: Few dietary supplements contain their advertised ingredients and nothing else, so be sure to read labels. If you see ingredients on the label that you don't recognize, you need to call the manufacturer or ask your pharmacist to find out more, Almon says.
Sneaky gluten source: wheat-based thickeners, other ingredients derived from barley or rye and sometimes soy sauce, added to Asian-flavored dressings.
Use this instead: Make your own! A basic, really easy dressing that can be used on any salad is to mix 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with 1 tablespoon of good olive oil and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Make your own variations by adding fresh herbs you have on hand or adding a tablespoon of gluten-free soy sauce.
Sneaky gluten source: food-processing equipment; frequently, these foods are produced in plants that process other foods that do contain gluten and can become cross-contaminated with gluten.
Use this instead: Stick with dried fruits and nuts advertised as gluten free, since "gluten contamination" usually isn't listed as an ingredient! By law, manufacturers have to protect any product labeled "gluten free" from equipment that can contaminate it.
Sneaky gluten source: flour, which is a common ingredient in yellow mustards.
Use this instead: Almon says that Dijon mustards are a better bet and don't contain gluten. Or, try this homemade yellow mustard, swapping the wheat flour out for a gluten-free alternative.
Sneaky gluten source: "broth solutions" used in so-called enhanced or self-basting poultry products that keep them moist during cooking; the broths can contain wheat-based fillers and flavor enhancers such as hydrolyzed wheat protein.
Use this instead: Avoid any birds labeled "self-basting" or "enhanced." For an added healthy bonus, hit up your farmer's market, where those types of birds are rarely, if ever, sold.
Sneaky gluten source: thickeners and stabilizers derived from gluten-containing grains, and added "natural flavorings" that may contain barley syrups or other gluten-containing ingredients.
Use this instead: Stick with plain yogurt and flavor it yourself with fresh fruits.
Sneaky gluten source: wheat flour, which is used in some chocolates, licorice and other popular candies.
Use this instead: Candies aren't particularly good for your waistline, whether they're gluten free or not. But dark chocolate, which is good for your heart, is frequently free of gluten-based ingredients and one of our favorite brands, Equal Exchange, sells truly gluten-free bars.