You see it in ads, on TV, on packages – Gluten-free! What does that mean, and what is gluten? Why do some people need a gluten free diet??
Gluten is the protein in most grains . . . wheat, rye, barley, durum, graham, semolina, bulgur wheat, and einkorn , one of a group of ancient grains related to wheat, but without genetic similarities such as spelt ( the oldest cultivated grain know which is easier to digest than wheat for humans), farro ( a cousin to wheat and barley), kamut ( an ancient distant relative to wheat), and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Gluten adds structure to breads, cakes and other baked goods. There is some question about whether oats contain gluten since commercial oats may contain gluten due to cross contamination in processing.
You may have a passenger or flight crew request a gluten- free diet. Why? Is it a diet fad or is it for real? It is for real! The need for a gluten-free diet may be due to an allergy or intolerance or a more serious condition known as celiac disease. Special care needs to be taken when placing catering orders for these individuals. On one end of the spectrum there is celiac disease and at the other end is a gluten intolerance. Celiac Disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder; an individual suffering from intolerance experiences some, if not all, the celiac symptoms, but with temporary ramifications. Gluten causes inflammation which results in damage to the small intestines for the person with the celiac disease. This damage prevents the absorption of vitamins and minerals necessary for the body to thrive, consequently causing numerous health related problems ranging from bad skin to extreme fatigue. Symptoms of celiac disease can range from diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition, to latent symptoms such as isolated nutrient deficiencies and no gastrointestinal symptoms. Other symptoms can range from mild weakness, bone pain, and abdominal pain to chronic diarrhea, and abdominal bloating.
Studies have shown that if a person with this allergic disorder continues to eat gluten, he or she will increase their chances of gastrointestinal cancer by a factor of 40 to 100 times that of the normal population.
Eating a gluten-free diet helps people with celiac disease control their symptoms and prevent serious complications. The only acceptable treatment for celiac disease is strict adherence to a 100% gluten-free diet for life.
Following a gluten-free diet means avoiding all products that contain wheat, rye and barley, or any of their derivatives. If your passenger or flight crew member consumes a product with gluten accidentally, more than likely they will experience abdominal pain and diarrhea. Some people experience no signs or symptoms after eating gluten, but this doesn’t mean it’s not damaging their small intestines. Even trace amounts of gluten in their diet may be damaging, whether or not they cause any signs or symptoms. One flight attendant relayed to me an on-board incident regarding a gluten allergic passenger. That passenger made the conscious decision to eat pizza along with the other passengers. Almost instantly his stomach extended to more than double its original size and along with this bloating he suffered extreme pain.. Individuals with this type of sensitivity must be very cautious of what they eat.
As a caterer, this is one diet that always seems to throw us a curve when the order comes into the kitchen. However, it is much easier to deal with now than it has been in past years. There is much more information available about the problem. Worldwide, there are an estimated 24.5 million people with a gluten intolerance/celiac disease. The demand for gluten free products has created a whole section in markets carrying breads, cookies, cereals and other items commonly loaded with gluten. According to the Nielsen Company, sales of gluten-free products increased 16 percent in 2010.
So, when placing that order for that particular passenger or crew member, talk specifically with the chef or owner to alert them to the seriousness of the gluten allergy. We, as the food source, must be alert to cross contamination of the proteins found in our kitchens, work spaces, equipment, and packaging. Even crumbs can “turn on” the autoimmune process typical of celiac disease , and can cause an instant reaction that you don’t want to have to deal with on board the aircraft. Ask the chef or caterer if they are aware of the hidden sources of gluten and that they please read and check all labeling for gluten.
Here are a few of the common places one might find gluten lurking:
- Recipes that use flour (bleached white flour, whole wheat, cracked wheat, barley, semolina, spelt, farro, kamut, triticale) (see notes above)
- Semolina, spelt and whole wheat pasta, including cous cous, are not gluten-free.
- Beer, ale and lager are not gluten-free. Brats, meats and sausage cooked in beer are not gluten-free.
- Malt vinegar, malt flavorings and barley malt are not gluten-free.
- Recipes calling for breadcrumbs, breaded coatings, flour dredging, bread and flat bread, croutons, bagels, croissants, flour tortillas, pizza crust, graham crackers, granola, cereal, wheat germ, wheat berries, cookie crumbs, pie crust, crackers, pretzels, toast, flour tortillas, wraps and lavash, or pita bread are not gluten-free.
- The vegan protein substitute called seitan is not gluten-free.
- Some tempeh is not gluten-free (you must check).
- Flavored tofu may or may not be gluten-free.
- Injera bread (traditionally made from teff flour) and Asian rice wraps may or may not be gluten-free.
- Barley enzymes used in malt, natural flavors, and to process some non-dairy beverages, chocolate chips, coffee and dessert syrups (and even some brown rice syrups) are not gluten-free.
Hidden gluten can also be found in gravy, broth, bouillon, soy sauce, tamari, marinades, sauces, salad dressings, cured meats, sausage, hot dogs, vegan hot dogs, sausages and burgers, self-basting poultry, flavored and herb cheeses, blue veined (bread mold based) cheeses, spice blends including curry powder, dry mustard, canned and prepared soups, tomato paste, sweeteners, confectioner’s and brown sugar, beverages, flavored coffees, herbal teas (watch for barley), roasted, flavored or spiced nuts, jerky, flavored yogurts and puddings, some chocolate, cocoa and instant coffee mixes, flavored vinegars, cooking wines, flavored liqueur and liquor, wine coolers, some ice cream and frozen desserts. It is also used as a food additive in the form of a flavoring, stabilizing or thickening agent, often as “dextrin”.
To plan a safe and nutritious meal plan for the person with the gluten – free diet. Look for whole, unprocessed foods.
- Fruits and vegetables that DO NOT come prepared in a package
- Meats that the butcher processes in the store that have not been filled with saline solution and seasonings
- Grains that only have one ingredient on the label such as rice
- Products that DO NOT say processed in a facility that processes wheat or “contains wheat”
Following is a good sample gluten-free menu:
Cold breakfast: Mainstream gluten-free cereals, such as the Chex family, and freshly cut fruit
Hot breakfast: eggs – scrambled, fried, poached, omelet, veggies, and frittatas. Forgo the bacon, sausage and processed hot cereals unless they are marked gluten-free.
Lunch: A fresh salad loaded with chick peas or seeds to add needed protein with ingredients that did not come prepared out of a bag, and fresh fruit. Beware of salad dressings since many contain gluten, I suggest using lemon juice and olive oil or a fresh made herb vinaigrette.
Dinner: Stick to simple meals such a serving of baked chicken or fish seasoned with fresh herbs, salt and pepper, a side of fresh vegetables, and rice or potatoes.
Snack: cheddar cheese slices with apple wedges. If ordering a cheese tray, be sure there are no processed cheeses or flavored and herb cheeses, blue veined (bread mold based) cheeses. If you opt out of the cheese tray and have fruit, do not include dips or spreads.
Special meals can be a daunting task, especially for those of you who have not previously encountered this problem. Also, speak to the passenger or flight crew member with the sensitivity ; they may able recommend items to order as well.