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For people with celiac, there is no cure. The only solution is to permanently avoid gluten. Already during the first day of my experiment, I encountered the complexity of such a diet in today’s food environment. Experiencing my regular 3 p.m. sugar craving in the midst of another busy day in the Forward’s newsroom, I walked over to the vending machine and explored the options. Remembering Fasano’s warnings about candies and snacks, I had no idea which of my favorites — Snickers, Twix, Oreos or Doritos — is free of the forbidden protein. I dragged myself back to my desk empty-handed, hopeful about dinner. My wife, Martina, a vegetarian and health food enthusiast, had decided to do the experiment along with me, and for our first gluten-free dinner we cooked a curried zucchini and brown rice dish, which we had made before. The only difference now was using a gluten-free soy sauce. We feasted. We were happy. I would look back on it as the best meal of my week.
Breakfasts were easy since I normally settle for just a banana or smoothie anyway. For lunches, I resorted to salad. I’d bring to work a bag with lettuce, tomatoes, a cucumber and carrots and cut them into a huge salad in the Forward’s kitchen, receiving both joking remarks and impressed looks from colleagues. On the third day, I bought a salad with baked chickpeas and a hard-boiled egg, after making sure it did not include croutons. On day 4, I was hoping to satisfy my meat craving with some chicken breast, but the server at the boutique Financial District market did not know if it was gluten-free.
I ate a salad. Again.
Every day at about 4.30 p.m., my stomach cried out in hunger pains. I couldn’t concentrate. On my route home, neon signs of pizzerias taunted me. My neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, offers few options for gluten-free grocery shopping, so our dinners were almost entirely based on cooked vegetables and fruit — similar to our regular evening meals, minus bread. To compensate, Martina concocted delicious smoothies, but I went to sleep hungry every night. For Shabbat dinner, I decided to splurge at Pomegranate, an upscale Brooklyn supermarket serving Orthodox Jews. “About four and a half years ago we started a gluten-free section,” said general manager Avi Gantz. “It grew a little bit upon a little bit, and today it is a half an aisle. It keeps growing.”
Our dinner included a challah made of gluten-free flour, corn flour-based pasta and gluten-free veggie burgers. The prebaked challah, which we defrosted before eating, lacked the stimulating scent of freshly baked Shabbat bread. The pasta had an overly dominant corn flavor and was edible only when drowned in a tomato-based vegetable sauce. And while Martina liked the veggie burgers, I found them stale and bland. For the price — nearly three times as expensive as the same products with gluten — we deserved better.
The next day I went to the mecca of health foods — Whole Foods Market in Union Square. I looked in awe at dozens of shelves of celiac-friendly alternatives — from bagels to chocolate, to cookies, to cereal. Since the Food and Drug Administration first proposed rules to govern gluten-free labeling in 2007, the market for these products has jumped by an average of 28% a year, reaching $4.2 billion in 2012, according to the trade journal Packaged Goods. Though the FDA only issued final labeling rules on August 2, most companies now display the gluten-free label on their products. Food giant General Mills has more than 300 products labeled gluten-free. In 2008, it had none.
“The demand has grown,” said General Mills marketing director Rebecca Thompson. “It has been double-digit growth for the last number of years and we expect it to continue.”
One of my favorite shelves in Whole Foods was the one for gluten-free alternatives to beer, which normally contains wheat, barley or rye. But I didn’t buy any. Instead, Martina and I decided to mark the end of our experiment by exploring offerings for the gluten intolerant at our favorite bars.
At the first, we sampled Omission, a beer brewed with a proprietary process to remove gluten. It was our first taste of a gluten-free beer and it was surprisingly good. The next bar had no gluten-free beers, so we drank an alcoholic cider. Too sweet, it did not fulfill our craving for a cold brewski.
Still, we raised a toast and reviewed the week.
The pros: We’d stopped snacking on pizzas, muffins and the like; we did better meal planning for fear we’d be stuck without gluten-free options; Martina said she felt fit and light, and I even lost two pounds. Looking back at what we consumed that week, there is no doubt it was a healthier diet than our regular one.
The cons, felt mostly by me: Spikes of hunger disturbed my work routines. I missed feeling stuffed from a meal. And when we bought gluten-free products, our food expenses rose to unfamiliar territories.
I could survive on a gluten-free diet, but it would be heavy on the wallet, take considerable research and planning and require that I relearn how to feel fulfilled. Now I’ll get tested for celiac disease, to see whether my gluten-free experiment will become my everyday reality.
Contact Yermi Brenner at firstname.lastname@example.org