What Is Gluten?
Flour + water = dough. What you see is a sticky, stretchy blob. What you can’t see is gluten. It’s the protein in flour that swells up and acts as the glue that holds the dough together. It’s what allows dough to spread when you pull and knead.
As dough bakes and becomes bread, gluten acts like a balloon that helps it rise. It’s what gives each slice a soft, chewy texture.
Bread is an easy way to explain gluten, but it’s not the only place to find it. Gluten lives in wheat, barley, rye, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), and any product that contains one or more of those grains. If you want or need to avoid gluten, here’s the foods to hit and the ones to miss.
Why Is Gluten Bad?
Gluten doesn’t get along with every digestive system. Some people have wheat intolerance syndrome. That’s one of three conditions that gluten can trigger:
- Celiac disease: A disorder in which gluten causes your immune system to attack your small intestine; over time, the attacks can damage the lining of your intestine.
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Also called gluten intolerance, the condition causes celiac symptoms -- like stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea -- but doesn’t damage your small intestine.
- Wheat allergy: Your immune system fights gluten like a virus or bacteria; if you eat it, you may have trouble breathing, a skin reaction, or problems digesting.
Going gluten-free is also a trend among people who don’t have medical reasons to avoid the stuff. Some people say they lost weight and gained energy when they cut gluten. But, there’s not much scientific evidence to prove that a gluten-free diet offers health benefits to people who can tolerate the ingredient.
What Foods Are Gluten Free?
You’re free to eat:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Unprocessed fish and poultry
- Unprocessed beans, seeds, nuts, and nut butters
- Most low-fat dairy products
Now these others aren’t necessarily the building blocks of a healthy, balanced diet. But, if it’s gluten-free food you’re after, you can help yourself to:
- Hard liquor
Look for these words on gluten-free food labels: amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn, cornmeal, cornstarch, flax, hominy, millet, quinoa, rice (brown, white, and wild), sorghum, soy, tapioca (cassava root), teff, whey.
Oat alert: Oats are gluten free, too. But they can make contact with other gluten-containing products where they’re grown or processed. For some people, trace amounts of gluten might be all it takes to trigger a bad reaction. If the label says “gluten-free,” the oats haven’t shared space with grains that contain gluten.
What Foods Have Gluten?
Here are some of the most common foods and drinks that you’ll need to steer clear of.
Breads and such:
- Breads: bagels, biscuits, cornbread, flatbread, naan, pita, rolls
- Breading: breadcrumbs, croutons
- Breakfast food: crepes, French toast, pancakes, waffles
- Cereal and Granola
- Crackers: graham crackers, pretzels
- Baked goods: brownies, cakes, cookies, croissants, donuts, muffins, pies
- Flour tortillas
The pasta family:
- Noodles: egg, ramen, soba, udon
- Pastas: couscous, ravioli, spaghetti, linguini, lasagna, and so on
Meal enhancers and sides:
- Sauces: gravy, soy sauce, cream sauces made with flour
- Soups: bouillon or soup mixes
- Condiments: malt vinegar, salad dressing
- Some French fries
- Beer: ales, lagers, malt beverages, porter, stout, and other beers especially made to be gluten-free
- Brewer’s yeast: you’ll see “wheat flour” on the ingredient list
Ingredient labels on these foods, and any others that contain gluten, might have one or more of these words: wheat, wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, Kamut khorasan wheat, einkorn wheat, malt or malted, wheat starch.
Dining Out Gluten Free
It’s easy enough to read labels at the supermarket. At a restaurant, it can feel like you’re flying blind. But because gluten-free diets are so common -- like other dietary restrictions -- most servers won’t bat an eyelash at your requests.
Here’s how to dine out well in a world without gluten:
- Plan ahead: Choose restaurants with gluten-free options and scope out the menu online. The Gluten Free Food Service releases a list of certified restaurants online every year.
- If you have questions, call the restaurant, but not during busy times.
- Educate yourself: Know what you can and can’t eat and all the hidden ways gluten sneaks into food. For example, if it’s crispy, it might contain flour. (Think: crispy potato skins.)
- Speak up: Tell your server you have celiac or gluten sensitivity and ask about your options.
- Work around it: If the restaurant doesn’t have gluten-free foods, try a burger without a bun, or a salad without croutons.
Baking Industry Research Trust: “What Role Does Gluten Play in Bread Making?” Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: “You Asked: What’s the deal with gluten?”
Mayo Clinic: “Gluten-free diet.”
Celiac Disease Foundation: “Sources of Gluten,” “Dining and Social Eating.”
Beyond Celiac: “What Is Gluten?” “Is it Gluten-Free?”
UChicago Medicine, Celiac Disease Center: “Frequently Asked Questions.”
Gluten-Free Food Service: “Certified Food Services.”