Field Guide to a Wheaty World
I have a confession: I’ve gone MIA these past two weeks for one, simple reason: my eating habits have been appallingly bad, and about the only things I’ve managed to actually “cook” at home (I’m using the term loosely) were some scrambled eggs and a tuna sandwich. What with taxes due, exams to study for, a newly-scored community garden plot to plant, research papers to write and the occasional paycheck to earn, it’s been a busier-than-usual couple of weeks, and grocery shopping sort of fell by the wayside.
In this context, there were no recent cooking anecdotes to share, and I felt hypocritical standing up on my soapbox preaching the merits of healthy eating when most everything I’ve consumed has come from a restaurant, plastic wrapper or cardboard box.
Yes, even nutritionists fall off the wagon on occasion.
All of this recent urban foraging, however, has forced me to re-sharpen my gluten-hunting skills to ensure that an accidental crumb carelessly overlooked in haste wouldn’t take me down. And in this process, I found the inspiration to write up a post that’s been building in my head for years: a list of unexpected sources of gluten whose camouflaged presence threaten the intestinal integrity of celiacs everywhere.
Who would have guessed THAT has gluten?!?
- Licorice: All licorice contains wheat. Period. That’s just how it’s made. From your beloved Twizzlers to the fanciest imported products from Europe that spell liquorice with a “q.”
- Wasabi peas: Seasoned, dried snacking peas often contain wheat flour as a coating to bind flavors to them, and 99% of the wasabi peas I’ve encountered are no exception. If you come across wasabi peas (or any snacking peas) sold in bulk that are not labeled, assume they contain wheat. Whole Foods’ private label brand is made without wheat, and if you live in New York, you can also find gluten-free Wasabi peas at the Nut Box, a chainlet with 3 locations throughout downtown NYC and Brooklyn. As a bonus, they offer a natural Wasabi Pea version that is free from the artificial colors used to produce that preternaturally green color.
- Low-fat or fat-free salad dressings: Various wheat-derived ingredients are commonly used to thicken up reduced fat or fat-free salad dressings. (Even some full-fat dressings may also contain gluten-contaminated products under the guise of “Modified Food Starch,” and unless they specify the starch is corn-derived rather than wheat-derived, better to be safe than sorry.) There are plenty of mainstream brands that market gluten-free salad dressings of across the fat-content spectrum, so this is a case where you’ll just have to read labels or ask restaurant servers to check for you.
- French sauces: Most of the French “mother sauces”–and the sauces derived from them–are based on a roux, which is a combination of flour and butter. As a result, you can pretty much guarantee that your local bistro’s version of these sauces will be, too. Bechamel, Veloute, Sauce Espagnole, Sauce Bourguignonne, Demi-glace, Sauce aux Champignons, and most any sauce that’s colored on the white-to-brown spectrum and found on a French menu, will contain wheat. Hollandaise and Bearnaise sauces should generally be safe from a celiac perspective (ask anyway), though their butter and egg-yolk provenance doesn’t exactly win them a nutritionist’s sauce-of-the-year award. For more celiac-friendly (and healthier) French food, look for restaurants that focus on Provencal cuisine–it’s way less sauce-based, and is more Mediterranean in its influence.
- Kellogg’s Rice Krispies: Sweetened with barley malt, the ubiquitous cereal of your childhood is not safe for celiacs. If you just can’t live without your mom’s homemade Rice Krispie treats, however, there are plenty of gluten-free crisped rice cereal brands that she can use as a stand-in: Erewhon and Nature’s Path are relatively easy to find nationally.
- (Some) Falafel: OK, so maybe fast-food falafel is a uniquely New York (or Middle East) thing, but if you’re ever visiting our fine city and have a hankering for some of New York’s finest balls of fried chickpea or fava bean mash, be sure to ask whether they put wheat flour in their falafel mixture. I was appalled to discover that some places actually do (it’s falafel blasphemy!). Maoz Vegetarian, an international falafel chain with several NYC locations, is currently one such offender, though word on the street is that the company is in the process of adjusting the recipe to make their falafels gluten-free for good. Until such a time–and indeed, anytime you go out for Middle Eastern mezze of unknown origin– be sure to ask the falafel powers-that-be to verify whether they use wheat flour in their falafel balls.
Deceptively Gluten-free foods
Lest the list above bum you out, I decided to end this entry on a more optimistic note. Hence, the below list of things you might think have gluten, but actually don’t.
- Wheatgrass (and Barley grass) juice: Yes, wheatgrass is indeed the young version of wheat, sprouted from a gluten-containing seed (in this case, the wheatberry). But the since gluten is a storage protein, it’s only found in the storage part of the plant: the seed. The young, green grass that sprouts from it is gluten-free and safe for celiacs. Having said that, one can never be too careful: if you’re ordering a wheatgrass shot at a local juice bar, make sure to let them know to be extra careful not to let any seeds get into your grass. (It’s unlikely they will, and most places cut the grass before your eyes–and cut it a good inch or so above the root at that. Since the seeds are pretty well-entrenched in the dirt, it’s not likely they’ll make their way into your drink.) This also explains why some of the “green” meal replacement bars that contain wheatgrass or barleygrass powder, and some frozen wheatgrass juice products, are able to claim to be gluten-free. Since you’re not there to see how the ingredients are handled, however, if you do buy a commerically-processed product containing wheatgrass, be sure to look for a labeling claim that certifies it as gluten free through ELISA testing or some other 3rd-party agency.
- Buckwheat: I’ve posted previously about buckwheat, whose nutritious grain-like seeds bear no relation to actual wheat. When eating out, you’re most likely to encounter buckwheat in the form of buckwheat pancakes, buckwheat crepes (crepes de sarrasin) or Japanese soba noodles. In all of these cases, you’ll need to verify with the server that the buckwheat flour isn’t also mixed with regular wheat flour. Nine times out of 10 it will be, but every so often, I’ve gotten lucky and found a 100% buckwheat crepe or soba noodle.
- Glutinous rice: If you’ve seen this on the ingredient list of an Asian rice or rice-derived product (Mochi comes to mind), rest assured that in this context, “glutinous” is a descriptive term meant to refer to its glue-like (sticky) texture. It does not suggest the presence of gluten. Like all rice, glutinous rice is gluten-free and safe for celiacs.