Written by Jennifer Hettinger Friday, 13 November 2009 00:00
A morning bowl of cereal. Deli-style sandwiches. Pretzels for an afternoon snack. These are simple things that are off-limits to me. In July 2007, I became one of the 1 in 133 Americans diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that prevents me from eating gluten.
The protein gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. When someone with Celiac ingests gluten, the immune system responds by attacking the lining of the small intestine, called the villi—the very thing that enables the body to absorb food and nutrients. Whether someone has severe, mild, or even no symptoms at all, the small intestine gets damaged and complications such as malnourishment, anemia, osteoporosis, cancer, and fertility complications can occur if left untreated or undiagnosed. The only treatment is to avoid gluten for life.
My initial understanding was that I would merely need to remove basic things from my diet like cereal, bread, and pretzels. But I’ve since learned that ordinary gravies, many soups, soy sauce, flavored chips, and a number of other foods—even cosmetics—contain gluten. For example, many gravies use wheat flour as a thickening agent. Malt-based foods contain barley. And while oat in its natural form is gluten free, it is often processed on the same manufacturing lines as other grains such as wheat, which causes contamination.
With this information in hand, I went home and cleared out my pantry. Only a handful of items remained. Then I hit the Internet and the grocery store. If you or someone you know is affected by Celiac, there are more and more options available. You may have even noticed “gluten-free” labeling on products in your local supermarket. General Mills Chex cereal now has many gluten-free varieties. Betty Crocker recently launched gluten-free cake, cookie, and brownie mixes. Amy’s Kitchen has a gluten-free line of products including soups, frozen entrees, and pizza. Gillian’s Foods makes gluten-free bread crumbs. Glutino, a popular company among Celiacs, makes gluten-free crackers, breadsticks, and pretzels, among other items. In fact, right here in Mineola, just south of the train station is Plum Tomatoes, an Italian restaurant that offers gluten-free pizza, pasta, and beer. Options like these have made a huge impact on the Celiac community and make everyday meals much easier to prepare and enjoy.
The changes that come with Celiac can be overwhelming because they affect such simple, everyday decisions. In addition to your doctor, there are gluten-free vendor fairs and meetings for Celiacs. I encourage you to involve your family—educate them, enlist their support, and bring them along for an interesting culinary ride!
(This year, Jennifer is running the Mineola Mustang Run as part of Team Gluten-Free, a project of the Celiac Disease Foundation that raises money through races around the country. All proceeds go directly to Celiac disease research, scholarships to gluten-free camps for children with Celiac, and awareness programs. If you would like to sponsor her, visit http://www.active.com/donate/teamglutenfree/jenniferhettinger. All donations are tax deductible. Jennifer is a graduate of Mineola High School and Hofstra University.)