Demystifying the World of Gluten-Free Groceries
As more specialty products become available, consumers struggle to decipher labels and identify healthy options that are safe.
If you’ve noticed a plethora of gluten-free products in your favorite grocery store, you can thank celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, who swear by the diet’s health benefits. But for sufferers of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, the diet is non-negotiable, and finding safe options is an expensive and challenging proposition.
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and can cause life-threatening illnesses. According to the National Institutes of Health, it affects roughly two million Americans, or 1 percent of the population. Though multiple drug trials are being conducted worldwide, a gluten-free diet—one free from the protein gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and potentially oats—can be the difference between life and death.
These trials show that traditional bread, pasta including couscous, Asian dishes containing wheat-based soy sauce, and even malt beverages and brewer’s yeast are verboten. And let’s not forget products processed on shared equipment that can create cross-contamination, with nuts and candies frequent culprits. The learning curve can be steep and fraught with frustration.
“It’s daunting when you enter a supermarket that’s so big with many aisles, yet the gluten-free section is limited to just a corner of one of the aisles,” says Pat Ayala of Winter Springs. She also cites the cost of living gluten-free: For example, a small loaf of gluten-free bread is often three times the cost of a larger traditional loaf. “This makes feeding a family with special dietary needs impossible in this day and age,” she adds.
Navigating labels has long been another challenge. Beginning in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration established ground rules for gluten-free groceries. To be labeled gluten-free, products could contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. But some manufacturers go beyond FDA requirements and pay big bucks to have their products certified gluten-free, some achieving gluten levels far below FDA standards.
Orlando-based nutritionist Megan Pohzekaj of Nutrition Awareness recommends that celiac sufferers look for certified gluten-free products when shopping for prepared foods. “You have to read the label on everything,” she says, “including how things are processed. But the best way to find safe products is to shop the periphery of the store.”
Pohzekaj says that you can slowly venture to processed foods such as cereals, kinds of pasta, bread, and occasional treats. She shares that when newly diagnosed celiac sufferers consult with her, “they’re so overwhelmed. They’re looking at this list of foods they can’t eat. I want them to focus on naturally gluten-free foods. Let’s talk about all the fruits and vegetables you can eat, all the meats and proteins you can eat, all the nuts and seeds and the legumes, all the potatoes, all those naturally gluten-free.”
Perhaps because people like Paltrow, whom Pohzekaj says have “co-opted” the diet, grocery stores have amped up their selection of gluten-free goods. Aldi’s LiveGfree line includes frozen meals like pizza and General Tso’s chicken and chips, cookies, bread products, pasta, and mixes.
Similarly, Walmart’s Great Value store brand offers a host of gluten-free products—canned and frozen foods, meals-in-a-box, and pasta. The chain also carries name-brand products for every meal or snack and every food group. Publix also offers hundreds of name-brand products, many of which have become integrated with their traditional counterparts throughout the store. In addition, Target carries hundreds of fresh, frozen, and prepared gluten-free foods.
Paola de Souza of Orlando, whose family eats gluten-free for her celiac daughter, shops in multiple stores to find her favorite products. She appreciates the prices and variety at Walmart and Aldi. During May, “they bring special gluten-free items to celebrate Celiac Awareness Month,” she says.
Last July brought the opening of Glutenless-Mart in Maitland, which became the area’s first exclusively gluten-free grocery store. “When I was looking for gluten-free products in the grocery store, it was really hard to find products because they’re spread throughout the store,” recalls co-owner Roberto Uzcategui, who suffers from gluten sensitivity. He would find products containing gluten even in sections that were marked gluten-free. He and partner Johan Rivero identified products people like, especially those that aren’t profitable for bigger stores to carry, and safely meet customer demands. The store carries both gluten-free and certified gluten-free products, the latter of which they recommend for celiac customers.
“We are not pretending to compete with the big stores,” he admits. “What we’re doing is going to those stores and looking for the products people are looking for and bringing those products into our store. We’re doing their work. That’s the added value we have at our store.” Shoppers also don’t have to worry about product packaging contaminated by nearby gluten-containing products, such as leaky bags of traditional flour.
For Uzcategui, it’s also a matter of convenience. Even personal-care products don the store’s shelves. “Everything is in a single place. It’s the idea of making the lives of gluten-free people easier for them, so they have food accessibility and security and know they have products for them.”
But Pohzekaj warns gluten-free shoppers: Just because a product may be safe to eat doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Gluten-free processed foods can be chock full of simple carbohydrates and fats. “If you’re on a gluten-free diet and eating a bunch of gluten-free pasta full of potato starch, you’re getting a lot of carbohydrates. If you’re not utilizing that energy from the carbohydrates, that will result in weight gain,” she says.
An Insider’s List of Gluten-Free Faves
In 2005, a biopsy and blood work showed I have celiac disease. Over the past 17 years, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on gluten-free groceries. Some left me almost in tears as I missed what I’ve had to leave behind; others left me—and my family—wanting more.
I’m sharing some of my go-to’s to spare the expense and heartache for other gluten-free folks. First, a disclaimer: I am a scratch cook, so I eat very few processed foods. But I don’t feel the least bit guilty about stocking these.
Hardly a day goes by when my husband won’t eat Gluten-Free Oreos for dessert. They cost a little more than traditional ones but can be snagged sometimes as BOGOs at Publix. Available at most retailers.
Even though I don’t have a drop of Italian blood, I’ve always loved pasta. Jovial and Tinkyada rice pasta cook perfectly and satisfy even the most skeptical palate. Available at Glutenless-Mart.
When I want tacos but don’t feel like making my own corn tortillas, I rely upon Old El Paso Stand N Stuff taco shells, one of the inherently gluten-free products. Available at most retailers.
Chocolate & Cherries
When I fly, I always pack Kind Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew Bars, knowing the difficulty I’ll have finding food on a plane or at an airport. Available at Glutenless-Mart and most retailers.
Snacks & Breakfast
Rice Chex is good for more than just breakfast. I use it crushed in the toppings for individual servings of berry crisps. For pie crusts calling for graham crackers, I crush Mi-Dell Gluten-Free Gingersnaps and make the crust according to the recipe, a family fave. Available at Glutenless-Mart and most retailers.
Canyon Bakehouse bagels and 7-Grain Bread are good enough to serve guests. Brazi Bites are perfect for daily noshing or holiday meals. Available at Glutenless-Mart and most retailers.
You don’t have to miss out on your favorite stir-fries when eating gluten-free. San-J Gluten-Free Tamari has all the flavors of soy sauce but none of the wheat. Available at most retailers.
Our family loves a good charcuterie for holiday gatherings. Our spreads often include Lance Gluten-Free Baked Original Crackers, Good Thins Gluten-Free Parmesan & Garlic Rice & Cheese Snacks, and Boar’s Head meats and cheeses. All Boar’s Head products are gluten-free, so they’re all welcome to the party. Available at Publix and Walmart.