Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is it spring yet?

My birthday is in early April. The weather is nearly always, at the very least, spring like. It’s the beginning of the baseball season. Kids happily run around playing outside after a winter of cabin fever. And flowers start blooming and brightening up the landscape with their beauty. I always think it’s a wonderful time to celebrate a birthday.

But this year may be different. I may be in for my first winter birthday! Regardless of what the calendar says, it is as cold as winter here on the east coast and has been for some time. In fact, yesterday the temperature was below freezing. This adds insult to the injury of a long cold winter, and more of the same is forecast.

Still, I plan to think spring and on that positive note, here are a few news items.

According to a recent press release, “Enjoy Life Foods will provide gluten-free, allergy-friendly alternatives as the recently announced “Official Gluten-Free, Allergy-Friendly Food Supplier” at Wrigley Field.” Wrigley Field is not the first ballpark to offer gluten-free foods. I don’t think we can yet say they are the rule in ballparks not the exception. But we’re getting there. Citi Field, home of my beloved Mets, offers gluten-free food. You’ll also find gluten-free food at Camden Yards, home of the Orioles, and several other ballparks around the country.

In a totally different arena, and according to another press release, noted celiac researchers, gluten-free community leaders and food corporations will host the first Gluten-Free Food Labeling Summit in Washington DC on May 4th, 2011. “The event will feature the world’s largest gluten-free cake, which will symbolize the big deal that clear, accurate, reliable labeling plays in the lives of people dependent on labeling for their health,” according to the release. You can get more information on their website.

The growth in diagnoses and in the number of products and services devoted to the gluten-free world has put some interesting spin on the reality of an official definition of things gluten free. As you know, the definition was due from the FDA nearly three years ago. But for whatever reasons, it has been stalled. I can only hope that friendly pressure from those with the most to gain from the ruling will help speed up the process. So take a look at the details and attend the event, or support it in whatever way you can.

Finally, and this note has nothing to do with spring, Amy’s blog on Dr. Oz has traveled far and wide and I am grateful for her eloquence. Part of her concern was misinformation about the gluten-free diet. I have long thought that physicians in general can be ill informed about the specifics of the diet and nothing has happened to dissuade me from this notion. When physicians mindlessly give advice on the gluten-free diet without questioning their source, they give the air of legitimacy to misinformation and, perhaps more importantly, make the diet a lot harder than it needs to be. I can’t tell you how often I’ve wished a misinformation-quoting physician had read our magazine. I’d give them all a free subscription if I thought they might read the issues!

But this long-standing gripe of mine is hardly spring like so I’ll get off my soapbox and hope for the warm weather that normally accompanies spring. May the Mets have an uncharacteristically good season (well, we can hope, can’t we?); may the FDA finally “own up” to the ruling they promised nearly three years ago (more hope!); and may spring finally arrive with all the promise it usually brings. Now this I know will happen!

Ann Whelan

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dr Oz mixed up on gluten-free myths

Dr. Oz is doing a series on myths about gluten on his network television show. I watched the three parts online yesterday after being alerted to them by Sandra Robins, who blogs as the Gluten-Free Optimist.

At one point, Mehmet Oz, MD, says it makes him angry, infuriates him, that people are being encouraged to eat gluten-free products as a way to lose weight when they cost twice as much as regular food and are really just junk.

While I whole heartily agree that the gluten-free diet is not and has never been a sensible weight-loss plan, I was equally infuriated by some of the insinuations and outright misinformation spread on the show.

First, Oz  gave the impression that gluten-free food companies exist mainly for the purpose of trolling for people who mistakenly believe that they can lose weight by filling up on gluten-free cookies, pretzels, waffles and other goodies. I think that is an inaccurate portrayal. In my experience, many gluten-free companies were created - often by people who have celiac disease themselves or who have a family member who does - to provide options for those who medically need a gluten-free diet.

It's true those options have grown ten fold as a result of increased awareness of celiac disease. The consequent jump in diagnosis has created a customer base large enough that these companies can now realistically expect to survive. And new research shows the real need for gluten-free alternatives is only going to expand as gluten sensitivity gets recognition from the medical community and many more are accurately diagnosed with this condition.

Legitimate celiac research centers, doctors, dietitians and other experts have never advocated the gluten-free diet as a weight loss plan, though there are some television personalities who have.

I could only shake my head when Oz said we are being bombarded in the supermarket by gluten-free products, as though those who need these foods don't have a right to shop for them easily and conveniently. I know how much simpler life is for my daughter, who has had celiac disease since she was two, now that she does not have to make a trip to across town to the health food store just to buy a loaf of bread.

And I clearly remember when even the health food stores had few choices, and we sent away to Canada on a regular schedule to get bread that was palatable. So while it's easy to say most people don't really need these products, it would be a little more generous and understanding to realize that a growing number of people really do. And it's not for weight loss. Gluten-free breads, flours, soups, and pasta are the very medicine that keeps those who have celiac disease alive.

I don't think the fact that General Mills replaced the gluten-containing malt flavoring in some Chex cereals with gluten-free molasses poses any health threat to the general public. But it does make it possible for someone on the gluten-free diet to eat a bowl for breakfast.

It's true that someone following the gluten-free diet can over indulge in gluten-free products that are not really that good for you. But I see aisle after aisle of junk food that does contain gluten, some of it labeled reduced fat or low in sugar. And I would venture to guess that many more people are getting fat on those products than by buying gluten-free brands.

The show also ignored the fact that gluten-free food makers are now trying to produce healthier products for the benefit of people who have no alternative but to eat them. Some are using whole grains and relying less on nutritionally devoid rice flour.

And I did agree with the statement by Dr. Oz guest Mark Hyman, MD, medical director of the Ultra Wellness Center, that a gluten-free diet built on healthy whole foods is best. That's also true in the gluten-containing world. Still an occasional treat should be allowed in both cases.

Hyman did disappoint me in other ways though. The two-week gluten elimination plan he advocated on the show would not make sense for someone trying to find out if they have celiac disease. In fact, if diagnostic blood tests were to be run during or too soon after, the results could be skewed. Accepted medical advice for diagnosis cautions against starting the gluten-free diet before tests are run. And I think someone who thinks they have a problem with gluten should rule out celiac disease first.

The other problem is that once someone starts a gluten-free diet it's hard to go back to eating gluten if they do feel better. If you are not eating gluten, a celiac diagnosis is nearly impossible.

I also take issue with some of the things Hyman offhandedly said about products that contain gluten. When describing a lunch option, he said the turkey in a wrap, not the flour tortilla, can be the real problem. We just did a story on deli meats in the last issue of Gluten-Free Living in which we found that many, if not most, brands of turkey are gluten free. I know you can run across a brand that contains gluten, but its easy to come away from a show like this with the mistaken impression that all turkey cold cuts are a problem on the gluten-free diet. That's not true.

I found it odd that potato chips, a product that can pretty easily be found in a gluten-free version, would be given as an example of a gluten-containing snack food. And I was confused by Oz's statement that most people think popcorn contains gluten because it is a junk food.

Lipstick was cited as product with "hidden" gluten. Again, Gluten-Free Living recently did a story that showed it is difficult to find any significant amount of gluten in lipstick. In fact even in the highly unlikely worst case scenario, the most gluten you could put on your lips daily is less than 5 parts per million. That's one fourth the amount proposed by the Food and Drug administration to be allowed in foods labeled gluten free. Based on our analysis of the ingredients in lipstick, it's much more likely the amount would be closer to 1.4 ppm.

And I was really infuriated to hear that envelopes and stamps have gluten in them to make them stick. All of our research over many years has found that these are two real myths about gluten.

Envelope glue does not contain gluten, according to the association that represents envelope makers. In fact there are only a few envelope glue makers in the US and the largest one makes its adhesive from corn. More than 98 percent of all stamps sold by the US Postal Service are self adhesive and do not require licking. The other 2 percent do not contain gluten in the glue.

You can find more information about these and other topics on our website.

Aside from the factual departures, I found the bottom line message in these shows confusing and contradictory. On the one hand, the two doctors told viewers not to get swept up in the gluten-free frenzy while on the other they kept saying that 99 percent of those who have problems with gluten don't know it. They encouraged a two-week elimination plan that runs counter to sound medical advice for those who have celiac disease. If I was somone wondering if gluten was a problem, I am not sure what I would conclude.

Oz said he was infuriated by gluten-free food being so readily available in the supermarket but then advised people to stay away from products that they can safely include in a gluten-free diet. And he passed on misinformation about products that either do not contain gluten or have miniscule amounts that are not the problem for those legitimately trying to get gluten out of their diets.

Which caused me to make this sad comment to Sandra. It made me wish, just for a moment, for the days when we couldn't get anyone on national television to mention the gluten-free diet. At least then we didn't have to worry that bad information would be spread so widely.

That moment passed quickly though. I applaud the gluten-free community's efforts to spread awareness and to increase the availability and quality of safe foods. Even if it makes Dr. Oz angry.

Amy Ratner

Polenta to the Rescue

The other night I felt like a contestant on the Food Network’s chef game show, “Chopped.” I wasn’t really prepared to cook dinner and was trying to cobble something together from my basket of mystery ingredients. Plus, it was 6:15 pm and everyone had to be finished eating by 7:10 pm to get to their various practices and evening classes.

I had thin sliced chicken breast, plum tomatoes and a sweet onion along with a pantry stocked with gluten-free side dishes such as quinoa, rice, cooked polenta and frozen sweet potato waffle fries. I had jars of salsa, tapenade, marinara and this Trader Joe’s red pepper spread with eggplant and garlic.

I got out every fry pan I had in my cupboards and just fired up the stove top. Into one went the thin sliced chicken breasts with a little salt and pepper. Into another went a little butter with sliced rounds of polenta. Into a third pan went a little olive oil with rough chopped sweet onion and tomatoes. Once the chicken was done, I threw it on top of the onions and tomatoes and then added half the jar of the red pepper spread and some chicken stock and let it all come together. I think I had the entire dinner prepared in seventeen minutes.

Rice is my steady standby as a side dish, but even I get sick of it after a while. I happen to love polenta fried up this way. I am not as crazy about polenta when it looks like porridge. Plus, I think it only tastes good this way if it is loaded with cream and cheese, which would not sit well in a kid’s stomach before a basketball practice. Pan frying the sliced polenta gives it a nice brown crust and I thought it would be tasty with the chicken and the sauce layered on top.

After twenty minutes, I tried to artfully plate the polenta rounds with the chicken and this beautiful red sauce with chunks of tomato and onion. I was prepared for lots of groaning and a few refusals to eat, but to my surprise I only had one kid moan and groan.

I thought for sure one would scrape all the sauce into a corner of the plate and just eat the chicken; however she just picked out the onions and ate everything else! Two ate the entire dish and the complainer had a peanut butter and jelly.

I need to restock those pantry shelves again and I am definitely going to figure out more ways to use polenta!

Kendall Egan

Friday, March 18, 2011

Should I do an Organic CSA?

I have been trying to figure out whether or not to participate in a share of an organic vegetable CSA (community supported agriculture). My fear was that in the early months I would receive an unending supply of radishes. I did a little research and looked at the photos of the deliveries over the twenty four week cycle and there wasn’t a radish in sight.

In fact, the assortment of vegetables was really varied and user friendly to a normal, nightly dinner challenged cook. The one vegetable that stumped me was fennel…what would I do with the fennel? Ironically, as I was trying to figure this out I received an email from Chef Daniel Bortnick, the Executive Chef and General Manager of Firefly. I had a wonderful meal this past February at Firefly, which is located in Washington DC.

I typically do not write emails to restaurants, but I had a quinoa dish that was extraordinary. True confessions, I thought that I did not like quinoa but I kept trying to make it because it is gluten free and a “super food.” Every time I made it, it had an edge or a bitter taste to it. Amy Ratner gave me the good advice that I am supposed to rinse the quinoa before cooking, which vastly improved the taste.

This was a quinoa dish with a green onion and spinach puree and braised fennel. Receiving the response from Chef Bortnick on St. Patrick’s Day was a lucky omen for me because I was literally deciding that day on whether or not to take a share in the CSA. It was the tipping point because I now know what I am going to do with the fennel!

This recipe has multiple components, but is not difficult and I think between the spinach and the quinoa, it must pack a powerful nutritious punch.

It is also ironic that the recipe arrived in my inbox on St. Patrick’s Day because the dish is a glorious shade of green on the plate. Next year I may aim for a green dinner versus the typical corned beef.

Thanks to Chef Danny and enjoy this recipe!
More information on Firefly, check out Facebook.

Kendall Egan





To Taste SALT





Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fasano on celiac disease and gluten sensitivity

All the news about the University of Maryland study that distinguishes gluten sensitivity from celiac disease has prompted us to share our recent Gluten-Free Living interview with lead researcher Alessio Fasano, MD.

Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research, sat down with me for an extended interview for our last issue published in 2010. He covered a wide range of topics. One was gluten sensitivity and the particular challenges it present to those who have it and the doctors they visit looking for answers.

You can read the full interview on our website.

Amy Ratner

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tastings from Natural Food Products Expo West, 2011

The Anaheim Convention Center was home to thousands of natural food products March 11-13, 2011. No matter how tired my feet were at the end of two days racing around to different booths, I left with a renewed sense of optimism on the direction of the food industry and a real sense of commitment to make smart food choices for me and my family.

One overall movement at this year’s show was the awareness and growth of non-GMO foods. “GMO’s (or genetically modified organisms) are organisms that have been created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE).” New species, that do not naturally occur, are created by science using merged DNA. They are bred to withstand disease or herbicide application but there is a growing concern that GMO’s are linked to health problems and environmental damage. Please visit the Non GMO Project for more information. I summed up their brochure very quickly here!

The other major food theme, which is no surprise at a natural product expo, is organic foods. There is so much emphasis on “clean food” and food that isn’t over processed. I find the innovation and the tastes to be really something special.

Of course, gluten-free food was one of the hottest buzz words on the floor. Two years ago, gluten free was called “trend.” Now, every break out session I attended said that gluten free was here to stay and growing. Panelists did not think gluten free would ever be as large a category as organic, but there is major growth supported by an ever growing number of consumers.

What I noticed about the new gluten-free products introduced at expo were the rich variety of gluten-free flours and the presence of whole grains! More producers were choosing millet, amaranth and quinoa flours than ever before. Mixes had coconut and almond flours and there were products that had the whole grain seal on them! This is a big change from the tapioca and potato starches and rice flour blends from the past. New mixes and products have really upped the nutrition.

So what did I enjoy tasting? Some of these products were new to me, but might not be new on store shelves.

In no particular order, here goes—
Feel Good Foods offered tastings of their GF Handmade Asian Style Dumplings with GF dipping sauce. OMG, they were just like the dumplings that I have missed so much. There are chicken, pork, vegetable and shrimp dumplings.

Starfish introduced frozen, oven ready GF Italian breaded sole and GF crispy battered cod, haddock and halibut. I have wanted this for a very long time, a quick frozen fish dish that works so well on an evening fill with baseball and lacrosse practices!

Kim & Scott’s Gourmet GF Pretzel bakes up hot and chewy with a salt packet on the side for garnishing to taste. They actually have 5g of whole grains per pretzel.

Riega Foods introduced a whole line of cheese sauces, white cheddar, yellow cheddar cheese, pepper jack and alfredo cheese sauces. These are going to be a busy mom lifesaver.

Solterra Foods has a huge gluten free line that includes gnocchi, pasta and baking mixes but their pizza with "bake in bag" technology is pretty exciting. The bag helps avoid cross contamination in ovens and margharita pizza was delish!

Usually, I am not a big fan of vegetarian burgers but I tasted Sol Cuisine Spicy Black Bean Burger and Original Burger and I liked both very much. I am definitely going to keep these in my freezer.

Barney Butter is my new sandwich spread! Their creamy almond butter was smooth and rich in nutty flavor and they are introducing a packet size, 90 calorie, portion that is supremely portable!

A GF fig newton? I tasted it and I loved it! Jovial Foods has a fig cookie that had me returning for a third and fourth cookie. They are imported from Italy and WOW!

There was a lot going on in the GF Bread category. First and foremost, Udi’s and Rudi’s have created hot dog and hamburger buns…amen! Glutino introduced Genius Gluten Free Bread which I predict will be a big success for them because the texture and flavor is very good.

Canyon Bakehouse is the one to watch. They have a large product line that includes hamburger buns, white bread, 7-grain bread, cinnamon raisin and rosemary-thyme foccaccia. They have included some interesting GF grains in their blend-millet, amaranth and sorghum to name a few. I am really excited about the taste and the whole grain seal!

Two mix companies caught my eye, The Pure Pantry’s dark chocolate cake mix was so good and the flour blend included quinoa flour! It was very rich and moist. Her entire product line was organic and three of her mixes were wholegrain (chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal spice cookie and the dark chocolate cake).

The XO Baking Co. launched a huge selection of GF baking mixes using coconut flour in her blend! Her sell sheet said that coconut flour is full of dietary fiber and is known to improve digestion and support thyroid function. I tried the banana bread mix and it was full of great banana flavor with a moist texture to the bread.

I tasted some great new biscotti from Ener-G and from Coffaro's Baking Co!

It gave me great pleasure to see two cookie vendors that I have known since their start up days showing their goodies for the first time at Expo West, Caveman Cookies and Glow Gluten Free. I hope they both had a great show!

Lastly, some of the well known GF brands were showing off their new packaging. Chebe Foods and Nature’s Path Organic Foods both look sharp in their new boxes!

This is really only the tip of the iceberg…the take away message for me is that gluten-free food is more delicious than ever and that just about any type of food can be made gluten free.

Kendall Egan

Monday, March 14, 2011

Gluten Sensitivity Gets Legitimate

Alessio Fasano

Not that long ago, many people who had celiac disease could not find a  doctor who knew what was what was wrong with them.

Their symptoms might have been lumped into a catch-all category of irritable bowel syndrome, or they might even have been told it was all in their head. Then came growing awareness and a consequent increased interest in research and better testing methods. Ever so slowly but surely it became easier to get diagnosed and return to good health through a gluten-free diet.

Now, it seems, the same process is beginning for those who are gluten sensitive.

Like celiac disease patients before them, people who have gluten sensitivity have long been frustrated by the fact that doctors can not pinpoint what is wrong. Their tests for celiac disease are usually negative, and they are often advised not to follow the gluten-free diet even though it relieves their celiac-like symptoms.

New research from the University of Maryland may mark the beginning of the end of that scenario.

 In a study published online at BMC Medicine, scientists from the Center for Celiac Research found that gluten sensitivity is a bona fide condition, distinct from celiac disease, with its own intestinal response to gluten.

"The research provides the first scientific evidence of a different mechanism leading to gluten sensitivity," the celiac center said in a press release. "It also demonstrates that gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are part of a spectrum of gluten-related disorders."

Alessio Fasano, MD, the lead investigator of the study and the director of the celiac center said one end of the spectrum is made up of people with celiac disease who can't tolerate even a crumb of gluten, while at the other end gluten causes no problems.

"In the middle, there is this murky area of gluten reactions," he said. "This is where we are looking for answers about how to diagnose and treat this recently identified group of gluten-sensitive individuals."

The study included 26 gluten sensitive and 42 celiac disease patients, plus 39 control subjects. Although gluten sensitive patients have the diarrhea, abdominal pain and other symptoms suffered by those with celiac disease, they do not have the  damage to the absorbing lining of the small intestine that characterizes the auto-immune disorder.

After a four month gluten-challenge followed by a return to the gluten-free diet, symptoms in all the gluten sensitive participants resolved in a few days and did not return for a follow-up period of four years.

Researchers found differences between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in intestinal permeability and genes regulating the immune response in the gut.(Intestinal permeability is the ability of the mucosal layer of the digestive tract to prevent bacteria, antigens, and undigested food proteins from seeping through the gastro-intestinal  barrier. Those who have celiac disease often have a high degree of permeability, sometimes called a leaky gut, but the study found that was not the case in those who are gluten sensitive.)

 The study documents, for the first time, the genes and sequence of reactions in the small intestine possibly associated with gluten sensitivity, Fasano said. Results of the study could lead to all-important tests that could  diagnose gluten sensitivity.

About six percent of the US population, or about 18 million people, have gluten sensitivity, according to the celiac center, compared to 1 percent who have celiac disease.

While results of the study are new, Fasano's conviction that gluten sensitivity is a legitimate condition has come up before. In an interview in Gluten-Free Living late last year (Number 4/2010), he said gluten sensitivity had always been disregarded by the medical and scientific communities. And he noted the desperation of those who suffered from its very real symptoms. "There is definitely a group..who are really and truly sensitive to gluten and when you remove gluten they don't have symptoms," Fasano said.

He alluded to the new study when he said the celiac center had some papers coming out that would start to give clues to some possible markers that could be looked at to make a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity.

Now one of those papers is here. In the gluten-sensitive community you could feel the satisfaction that came with acknowledgement that the conditions is, in fact, real. (No one could blame them for wanting to say "I told you so.")

Now let's hope the diagnostic tests aren't too far behind.

Amy Ratner

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Devil's Food Cupcakes

The new issue of Gluten-Free Living arrived in my mailbox yesterday. The cover is gorgeous, cupcakes with pink frosting and sprinkles. I typically do not write articles, but every now and I then I enjoy doing interviews or expanding a blog post a little bit. I happened to do the interviews of our cupcake panelists that correspond with our delicious looking cover.

At the end of an article there is typically a little “blurb” about the author and my blurb says “Kendall Egan is advertising manager for Gluten-Free Living. She and her son follow a gluten-free diet. So, she has made countless gluten-free cupcakes. Her favorite is terribly unoriginal Devil’s Food chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.”

Last night, I was participating in an interview committee for my school district and a text message plinks into my phone. I ignored it until a break and then I checked to make sure one of my kids wasn’t stranded somewhere without a ride.

My celiac sent me the following text message, in full text-speak, “I cant w8 4 those chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting, I cant w8 4 U to make some of those.”

My first reaction was laughter, what a smarty pants because he knows that I am just a terrible baker. But, my second reaction was a nice feeling of pride. If he saw the little blurb at the end, that means he read the magazine and he read my article. That made me very happy.

Of course, the wise guy just texted me forty-five minutes ago and asked, “did u finally make some of those devils food chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting?” I did not, but I quickly ran downstairs and threw some frozen cookie dough in the oven so warm chocolate chip cookies will have to do!

Kendall Egan