Gluten-Free America: A Taste Test

“It’s really been helping my joints,” a man recently told me of the gluten-free diet he’s been following of late. It should have surprised me that I was talking shop with someone about gluten-free pasta choices, but it didn’t, because we were in the progressive town of Mount Shasta, California, where the naturalist residents are fluent in the latest FDA-eschewing remedies, whether a dietary restriction, a pill, a drink, or a form of exercise (mental or physical).

Like many proponents of a wheat- or gluten-free diet, this man doesn’t have celiac disease, an auto-immune condition that prevents the body from absorbing gluten and which is considered one of the most underdiagnosed conditions in this country. He just likes what happens when he doesn’t eat gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, faro, kamut and arguably oats (many claim oats are only contaminated by wheat if mixed with it during the milling process). Biologically speaking, it’s hard for humans to digest gluten (as lactose), but our diet is filled with the stuff. Not only is it in baked goods, but also most big-brand cereals, soy sauce, candy, chocolate, spirits and more.

Those who abstain from gluten have reported improvements in their joints, sleep, skin, digestion, general energy level and weight. It’s been prescribed to children suffering from autism and, for better or worse, many celebrities, mostly of the slender, female variety, claim to be on the diet. But for these people and the approximately 1 in 100 U.S. citizens who has celiac disease, sticking to the diet is challenging.

What’s so wrong about not being able to eat Fruit Loops, Twinkies, Twizzlers and Pop Tarts, to name just a few items off limits to gluten-free people? True, there are plenty of bad food options, particularly in the US, that gluten-free folk have the privilege of avoiding. But what’s being consumed in their place? The reality is that packaged gluten-free food is hard to find, expensive, and often not as nutritious as the gluten-containing equivalent. Interviewed in the Wall Street Journal this week, dietitian Shelley Case cautions against going on a gluten-free diet just to lose weight, because the gluten-free bagels, muffins, pizza crusts and cookies found in supermarkets like Whole Foods are often “even higher in carbs, sugar, fat and calories than their regular counterparts, and they tend to be lower in fiber, vitamins and iron.” One of the tell-tale signs of celiac disease is malnutrition. Surely this should end once the disease has been diagnosed. Apparently not.

A year ago, the New York Times gave similar advice, offering some useful links for people on the diet, but noting that many on the diet do their own baking, rather than settle for packaged items.

Celiac disease is most common in people of Northern European descent, so it comes as no surprise that Scandinavia, the UK, France, Germany and Canada have conscientious restaurants offering gluten-free menu options and supermarkets featuring many simple (as opposed to decadent) options worth buying. The US is getting better––I’d hate to have been diagnosed with celiac disease even five years ago––but it still has a ways to go to catch up with those countries. Herewith, some of the worst, best and weirdest gluten-free products in America.

Foods By George

George knows what he’s doing. His pizza crusts, muffins and scones are tasty, fluffy (when toasted) and contain a minimal number of ingredients, like tapioca flour, xanthan gum (a popular gluten substitute) and salt, along with a decent amount of nutrients like iron. If you live somewhere like Mount Shasta, you’ll probably find his products in the supermarket or a food co-op. If not, Foods By George has a website complete with a Sade-like musical intro. Items are pricey to ship––like many GF products, they’re frozen, and George’s are delivered in a box of dry ice––but for those who don’t have time to bake (or the patience to experiment with gluten-free baking, rather), this company is a sure bet.
Verdict: Buy

Glutino

If you miss the cracker part of the crackers-and-cheese equation, Glutino is arguably the best substitute. The company also makes an excellent Oreo knock-off. Their products might be a little high in fat, but they (consequently) taste pretty great.
Verdict: Buy

Pamela’s Products

I feel bad for Pamela, because she’s probably somebody’s mother, but her chocolate chip cookies taste like half-baked clay and…chocolate chips. The chip-to-clay ratio is high enough to make these satisfying, but only in a pinch.
Verdict: Skip

Ancient Harvest

Ancient Harvest is the jam, the crème de la crème of gluten-free pasta. After trying out numerous different brands, there’s no comparison to Ancient Harvest’s quinoa pasta for durability, taste and nutritional content (quinoa is a high-protein grain, so a serving contains a few more grams of protein than semolina pasta). Other gluten-free pastas tend to fall apart while cooking, or create a weird gooey film in the water (which presumably contains some of its nutritional value), and take longer than semolina to cook. The consistency of Ancient Harvest’s pasta mimics regular pasta, so you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.
Verdict: Buy

Against the Grain Gourmet

Against the Grain Gourmet (not be confused with another gluten-free baking company called Against the Grain Foods) calls itself a “revolution in gluten-free breads,” but I beg to differ. The only thing revolutionary about the products is that many of them include mozzarella cheese as a substitute for gluten (gluten being the ingredient that gives baked goods that bouncy, chewy elasticity). As a result, this company’s pizza crusts and bagels taste pretty much like croissants––delicious but fatty as hell. If you’re looking for a croissant stand-in, try the bagels, but you’ve been warned. They’re addictive.
Verdict: Proceed with caution

La Tortilla Factory

La Tortilla Factory, which I discovered in Mount Shasta, makes all kinds of wraps, including teff, which is a gluten-free grain used in Ethiopian cuisine. If you miss wraps––corn tortillas are usually too small for this purpose––teff is a great substitute. La Tortilla also includes millet in its teff tortillas, but this is also a gluten-free grain.
Verdict: Buy

Bob’s Red Mill
Bob’s Red Mill makes a generous line of gluten-free flours, baking mixes, pancake mixes, hot cereals, granolas, xanthan gum and more. Bob is indispensable if you want to start baking gluten-free. The products are available online, but you’ll also find them in a large number of supermarkets––even the run-of-the-mill New York chain Key Foods!
Verdict: Buy

The Shortlist:

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  • http://twitter.com/MollyWest12th Molly Oswaks

    One of the most up-to-date and well informed pieces of writing on celiac/gluten I've read in a while. There is a better pasta on the market, though. Believe me, I've sampled them all, I was diagnosed with celiac as a baby.

  • Bdonz

    Let me tell you, the best GF bread BY FAR is Udi's. You can store it in the fridge and just grab a slice untoasted whenever you want – and it's delicious. Trust me on this one – buy some this instant. They also make great muffins and cinnamon rolls.

    My favorite pasta is Bionaturae. No mushy consistency, no weird ricey flavor.

    And try Pamela's mini ginger snapz. They're great…

  • lizzyville

    Awesome Molly! Tell me what it's called. I've only been at this 3 years!

    • http://twitter.com/MollyWest12th Molly Oswaks

      The pasta is made by Tinkyada. If you email me, I can recommend a zillion restaurants, products, etc.

  • Chris

    Great list, but why not mention UDI. They have by far the best tasting and texture bread and bun products. The texture is closest to glutenous bread, and whats more? They’re healthier and whole grain. http://www.udisglutenfree.com/

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