Are You Really Off Gluten? It's Time to be a Food Detective
Over the last week, I’ve received plenty of feedback on my inaugural article. Friends, acquaintances, curious readers…many inboxed me to say they appreciated my insights, some said there was more exhaustive literature on the subject available elsewhere, and a handful wrote to inquire if this level of concern about food and nutrition was really warranted, in that, did it not reflect a ‘new-age obsession’, a paranoia of sorts?
Firstly, many thanks for the feedback. It lets me understand the concerns of the broader community. Also, I whole heartedly agree there is plenty of new and emerging research on the subject, much of it is coming out of dedicated centres of research (the Chicago Centre for Celiac Research is at the forefront of some of this, and I encourage you to follow-their work and support them when you can). In my columns however, I hope to distil my life-experiences as an Indian mother raising three kids in what can best be described as a semi-hostile urban living experience of contemporary India.
Now, I don’t want anyone to get riled up unnecessarily. I live in a lovely part of town in the capital of India with three loving kids and a great husband. I’m fortunate to have the time and resources to control (or at least, attempt to control) my living environment. And yet, it is best to paraphrase what I think Woody Allen once said: it is not paranoia if someone is really coming after you!
In contemporary urban India, our air is not fit to breathe, our water sources are constantly contaminated, and the manner in which our food sources are grown, transported, stored, cooked etc. would leave the best of us bewildered about the nutritional value of what we finally put in our mouth even if we all knew facts surrounding food. Compound that with the misrepresentation and mislabelling in the food industry prevalent around the world in general, and even more so in India, and it would anger the most patient of us. Yes, you need to be paranoid!
As such, here’s my learning: It’s quite elementary, really. (Pun intended). It is best to be a “Food Detective”. If you (i) don’t know the nutritional value of what you’re about to eat, and (ii) are unaware of the manner of its preparation, it is best to assume the worst.
Is this paranoia? Well, maybe. But is it justified? Absolutely. Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel wrote: “Only The Paranoid Survive”. Now think: Andy Grove was writing about business, an important and noble pursuit which affects the world around us. I’m talking about nutrition, and which affects the world inside us. How in the world can you afford to not be paranoid when the stakes are so high? Only when you’re paranoid about what you’re eating will you raise food issues to the level of importance they deserve.
Let me highlight this with an example, and which will bring the article back to the subject at hand: Did you know gluten is present in your baking powder? Or that corn flour is cornstarch obtained from the endosperm of wheat or maize kernel. Or that soya sauce has wheat in it. Synthetic vinegar has wheat in it. Tomato ketchup made with synthetic vinegar has wheat in it. Here’s another fact: In India, most of your masala’s have gluten as most are blended with some amount of flour to give them their smooth texture. ‘Hing’, which is used extensively in Indian cooking has gluten.
Here are my two foundation principles which are applicable for both, those with digestive disorders or even those who want to enhance the quality of their nutritional intake: Simply to be aware of what you’re eating. That is what it means to be a ‘Food Detective’. Notwithstanding the noise which is constantly prevalent on the net, you can quickly filter through the fog and get more accurate answers to see the basic constitution of the ingredients you use for cooking.
And second, and this is self-evident but bears repetition: when in doubt, use natural ingredients for your cooking (E.g.: If you need starch for cooking, use tapioca or potato. Use natural vinegar’s like apple cider or corn vinegar). Aim for simple luxuries: if you can, buy a mill which you can use to grind various types of flour and masala’s at home without the cross-contamination prevalent in commercial mills.
Let me end with some good news. All things said and done, India is still one of the best places to start a gluten free diet as many alternative grains are easily available such as jawar (sorghum), ragi (finger millet), bajra (pearl millet), amaranth, kuttu (buckwheat), and of course, variants of rice: brown rice, red rice, wild rice etc. And all spices are available in the whole form. It requires a greater degree of dedication, but then, what else is more important than your health and that of your family?