Entering the Hummus Bar in midtown Manhattan, I knew this was going to be the most challenging moment of my weeklong gluten-free experiment.
I’ve been in love with hummus for years. When I lived in Tel Aviv, at least three times a week I ate a plate of the chickpea dish for lunch. I never needed a fork or a spoon — only a pair of fresh pitas, which I used to wipe the plate clean of my beloved dip. Unfortunately, while hummus does not contain gluten, the inevitable pita is a celiac patient’s worst nightmare. The woman behind the counter was not rattled when I asked if there were alternatives to go with my hummus. She offered carrot sticks or broccoli. I eyed the tray of freshly baked wheat delights and took the veggies.
Suppressing cravings and compromising desires turned out to be the theme of my gluten-free experience, which lasted seven days but felt like a month.
I didn’t do it for fun. I had recently learned I might develop celiac disease, a condition in which the lining of the small intestine is inflamed and damaged and can no longer absorb some important nutrients. Gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, triggers the disease, causing weight loss, bloating and digestive problems. Over time, celiac can deprive organs such as the brain and liver of vital nourishment.
Last year, my mother was diagnosed with celiac. Though she had consumed gluten her whole life, only at age 60 did she start having severe stomach pains and bloating, which have abated on a gluten-free diet.
Because the children of celiac sufferers are 10 times more likely to develop celiac, her doctors said my siblings and I should have our blood tested and that we should be genetically screened for the disease, even if we were not showing symptoms. What turns on the disease in people with a genetic susceptibility is not known, but experts agree that excessive gluten consumption is a factor.
And so, even before being tested, I decided to get a taste of what the rest of my life could be like, without the familiar flavors of pitas, bagels and challah. In my regular diet, which is non-kosher and 90% vegetarian, I eat wheat products at least once a day. Typically, in a hasty break from work, I’ll grab a sandwich or two slices of pizza (sometimes three). But as I learned from Alessio Fasano, medical director of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, gluten isn’t just in the obvious suspects. It’s added to a wide range of processed products, from ice cream to candies to schnitzels. “You add chicken or soy sauce to your meal, and you are eating gluten without even knowing it,” said Fasano, who charges the American food industry with overusing the protein. “The overall amount of gluten that you eat today is probably more than in the past.”
That might be contributing to the rising number of people with celiac, which has quadrupled since the 1950s. At least one percent of Americans has been diagnosed with the disease, and many more are undetected. According to a 2012 article by Fasano, it also seems to be spreading wherever Western lifestyles are adopted, though researchers aren’t sure why. A 2008 study by professors at the University of Tampere in Finland compared the incidence of celiac in two towns on the Russian–Finnish border, where the populations share the same ancestry and consume the same grain products, but live in completely different socioeconomic environments. The more developed Finnish town had a much higher prevalence of celiac patients.
“There is something about human development — the way we eat, the medication we take — that has led to increasing autoimmune conditions,” said Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, referring to celiac as well as to type 1 diabetes.
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