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Mention gluten-free in most circles and you’ll get more than a few eye rolls. The juries are out, research-wise, and so it still remains inconclusive, scientifically, for whether gluten-free can be beneficial for people other than Celiacs or those with wheat allergies. This post, though, is not going to focus on the controversy but more on the food side – because hey! We all love to eat, and if we can make eating gluten-free somewhat as enjoyable as non-gluten free, then that is a reason to celebrate!
My mom has eaten a wheat-free diet due to digestive issues for many years, before the word “gluten” ever entered popular knowledge. Because of this, she tended to cook wheat-free meals a lot, or to cook wheat-free substitutes for herself when she made us dinner that included wheat (such as pasta, sandwiches, etc). My siblings and father and myself had always been very skeptical of mom’s “food” (imagine a snarky teenager miming air-quotes with her fingers), as gluten-free products in those days were usually pretty awful: crumbly, tasteless imitations of only the most basic baked goods, usually pumped full of preservatives or extra sugar trying to mask the sawdust flavour. As self-proclaimed bread lovers and full time foodies, my dad and I moaned about how having to eat a wheat-free diet was probably one of the worst fates a food fanatic could imagine.
However, at the age of 23, I found myself in that feared fate. The connection between my extreme eczema condition and wheat products (and the subsequently life-changing itch-reduction once I stopped eating wheat) necessitated that I, too, follow a wheat-free diet. Surprisingly, the transition wasn’t as hard as I had always thought. Our family meals had always traditionally had less wheat in them due to my mom’s dietary restrictions, and “gluten-free” had just started to become the buzzword that it is now, meaning band-wagoners were driving a race to develop a huge new range of gluten free products. It’s been almost 6 years now of on-and-off eating wheat-free and aside from the intense cravings for a croissant that I have once in awhile (it’s one of the pastries I’ve never been able to find in gluten-free), it has definitely not been the awful fate I’ve always imagined it to be.
I’ve had quite a few people who are just starting out wheat-free diets ask me for food recommendations. It’s definitely hard trying to choose from all the different options out there, as the products can range from delicious to disgusting. I thought that I would post the first of several gluten-free posts I’ve written containing suggestions and recommendations for getting through wheat-free living. This first post contains a listing of my personal favourite gluten free products, based mostly on taste (I am a foodie, after all) but also on price and ease of accessibility. It’s written from a west-coast Canadian perspective, so some of these products might not be available in other areas (but hey, usually every GF product guide I read is American, so guides from a Canadian perspective can be pretty rare!)
Please note that these are based on my own personal taste and my own tolerance level with wheat and gluten (I am not Celiac) – I am in no way endorsing that these products are safe or appropriate for every person, but encourage you to do your own research if you are unsure if a product is right for you!
O’Doughs Loaves (their buns are great too) – my favourite is the Flax Bread (however, sadly they are not soy-free, so if you’re soy-free, these might not be for you). For a bread that is the closest to a white toast, I quite like Canyon Bakehouse. I also really like the Glutino brand White and Multigrain breads – they are also a normal sized piece of bread, which is nice since most GF breads tend to be tiny little slices. Lately I’ve been loving the bread from Spiffy Bakeshop – they’re a Quebec-based company, and I usually find their products for a pretty good price at Superstore.
Without a doubt, the Glutino English Muffins (usually in the frozen section) are amazing toasted with butter or margarine, great as a base for a breakfast sandwich, or even as a bun for a burger or sandwich. They’re a little pricey, but oh so good.
I haven’t had a lot of luck with the pizza crust flour mixes (where you mix and bake the crust yourself). But O’Doughs and Udi’s are actually quite good, ad super easy to use if you buy the frozen shells.
Crackers and Pretzels
The most “normal” tasting gluten-free crackers are without a doubt Dare’s Gluten-free Breton Crackers (I like the flax ones). You could put these out at a party, and none of your gluten-eating friends would ever be the wiser. For something simple, Rice Thins or Rice Crackers (readily available through many brands, but I really like “The Good Thins” sesame rice thins) are great.
Glutino brand pretzels and President’s Choice Pretzel Sticks (really yummy dipped in a mixture of peanut butter and honey). Glutino also makes a chocolate covered pretzel and a yogurt covered pretzel – mmmm.
Breakfast Grains and Cereals
Oats and Hot Cereals
Oats are naturally grown gluten free, but most processing of oats incorporates gluten, so if you are wheat-free, make sure to look specifically only for gluten free oats. Bob’s Red Mill (Gluten Free/Wheat Free Rolled Oats and Steel-Cut Oats) are great. If you are a baker, oats like these can also be pulverized in a blender to make oat flour, which is a great, natural, gluten free baking flour.
I’ve always been a big granola fan, so just like with regular oats, there are a lot of gluten-free granola options as long as they are labelled this way. I love KIND’s granolas and CLIF makes a yummy granola as well. Nature’s Path makes so many delicious GF cereals, it is hard to choose just one to reccomend, but I like the GF “Whole O’s” and the “Sunrise” Cereals (including Vanilla Sunrise and Mesa Sunrise, both delicious!)
Granola Bars/ Energy Bars/ Breakfast Bars
KIND Bars (nut based, but they do have soy), Lara Bars (Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip is soo good), Solo Bars (Chocolate Mandarin is the best, ), Nature’s Path Pumpkin Spice granola bars. In Canada, a lot of these are available at Whole Foods, London Drugs, and Superstore/Loblaws.
Wendel’s takes the cake (or should I say the cookie) here. Wendel’s is a little bookshop café in Fort Langley that also just so happens to have amazing GF baking. Lucky for us in the Lower Mainland of BC, they’ve expanded their product line to sell at grocery stores ( Whole Foods, Nester’s market, Thrifty Foods and Safeway often have them.) I love their chocolate chip cookie the best! For those of you outside of Wendel’s reach, Glutino has great cookies as well – their lemon and chocolate wafers are delicious (taste the same as non GF ones), and I also like their chocolate chip and crème-filled biscuits. WoW Baking Company is another good one – based in Washington, but with products available in Canadian grocery stores, they have a good selection of “soft-baked” cookies that are definitely not the typical powdery baking many people associate GF cookies with. A tip for you: the WoW Chocolate chip cookies taste best frozen, fresh from the freezer without thawing. I don’t know why, but even my non-GF friends love them icy cold. GoGo Quinoa makes some really yummy crisp cookies – the Chocolate Chip ones are delish. A last favourite mention goes to Annie’s Gluten Free Bunny Cookies (in vanilla and cocoa flavour, and in Snickerdoodle flavour) – taste just like Teddy Grahams and make me feel like a kid again with the cute little bunny shape.
With GF baked goods, the trick is in the preparation. Unfortunately, losing the gluten often means losing the moisture and elasticity in the product, but usually that can be regained through heating the product up. Udi’s Gluten Free muffins (blueberry is my favourite) taste pretty much ah-maz-ing when they’ve been heated up for about 30 seconds in the microwave – they get a nice stretchy quality that most GF people miss (I realize that sounds really weird to find stretchiness a good quality in a muffin, but when you don’t eat gluten, stretch in baked goods is a rarity). Not heated up, they taste pretty stale to a gluten-loving mouth, so definitely heat them!
Good, gluten free Pasta and bread are really the 2 most important gluten free substitutes to figure out early on in your GF diet. They’re staples in many North American kitchens, and without a good gluten free version in your cupboards, you might really start to miss your former, glutinous life. I’ve tried a lot, and have to say that the most important thing that seems to affect texture and firmness of the pasta is the shape of the pasta itself and how long you cook it for. In almost all brands I’ve tried, the fusilli or penne forms of the pasta are much easier to cook and are firmer and more al dente. Spaghetti, in the traditional, long, thin form, almost aways ends up a bit mushy, and usually breaks apart when eating, rather than maintaining their long, thread-like form. My favourite fusilli and penne is the Catelli brand gluten free (tastes the closest to real pasta). I also enjoy Tinkyada fusilli, which are made from rice, but they can go mushy very quickly when cooking, so try taste testing often when cooking and remove from water as soon as they become al dente. President’s Choice at Superstore. For a Mac and Cheese, you can’t go wrong with Annie’s Gluten Free Mac and Cheese – great, quick meal!
Sauces and dressings are always tricky for me. Because they’re not solid, baked items, I often don’t think about whether a particular sauce has wheat flour in it, but often it is used as a thickener. Before I noticed that soy seemed to aggravate my eczema, Soy Sauce and Teriyaki were some of my faves since I’ve always loved Japanese food, but Wheat is a main ingredient in both. I would often carry around little packets of gluten free soy sauce (Tamari) in my purses and jacket pockets, since I eat sushi so often. People usually would find it hilarious when I would bring my own soy sauce supply with me, but it makes it taste so much better that the laughter just brushed past me whilst I basked in foodie bliss.San-J makes a good Tamari, and tastes just like regular soy sauce. Since I had to stop eating soy, I’ve taken to creating my own “soy-like” sauce, from mixing broth, ginger powder Worcestershire sauce, and molasses – definitely not the same, but does the trick. I’ve heard good things about coconut aminos as a soy sauce replacement, but haven’t tried it yet.
Most gravies are, sadly, full of flour. If you make your own roast, you can easily make a flour-free gravy from scratch using corn starch or a gluten free flour. But if you’re looking for a quick, easy option, the instant mix for Gluten Free Gravy from Clubhouse brand is a great option.
What are your favourite gluten free store-bought products? I am a foodie to the core, and always love hearing about new, great products. If you find an amazing gluten free perogy or croissant, let me know because these would be the holy grail of gluten free products for me! Happy eating!