Why Gluten-Free Food Isn’t All Gross

The president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reacts to our story.

Ed. note: Last week, I posted a piece called “The Downside of Going Gluten Free: Everything Tastes Gross.” It was mostly an excerpt from a NewsWorks piece about how hard it is to find gluten-free food that actually tastes good. The writer, a comedian, bemoaned the flavorless choices of gluten-free pasta, cookies, cake and the like, writing, “When I was forced to go gluten-free, my doc didn’t mention I would have to also become free of anything that tasted delicious.” Alice Bast, the president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, HQ’d in Ambler, asked if she could write a response. I told her to go for it. Here’s what she has to say.

Dear Emily,

When I saw your headline “The Downside of Going Gluten-Free: Everything Tastes Gross,” I thought, Well that’s a tad dramatic. After all, just last week you challenged GrubHub on its decision to leave Philly off its list of the best gluten-free cities. And considering how many gluten-free recipes and menu shout outs I’ve seen you share with Be Wellers, this sudden declaration seemed out of the blue and, well, pretty outdated.

Then I read Valerie DiMambro’s article. She makes some good points. Is the gluten-free fad frustrating? You betcha, especially when you have a medical condition that means you must eat gluten-free—24/7, for the rest of your life—but you’re lumped in with people who order a gluten-free cupcake because “it seems healthier.”

But one benefit I see in this trend is that gluten-free products are a whole lot better than they used to be.

I was diagnosed with celiac disease more than 20 years ago. Back then, no one voluntarily ate gluten-free products—they tasted terrible and they were practically impossible to find. It’s one of the reasons I started the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA)—I wanted to make our lives (and food) better.

Now, thanks to the work of celiac disease advocates and some help from the booming interest in gluten-free diets, manufacturers are spending millions on research, development and marketing to make the best tasting gluten-free products and get them in stores fast. You can find gluten-free products—including munchies—at any Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, ShopRite and even Walmart. When I go to a friend’s house and she serves gluten-free crackers, I like to pretend it’s because she wants me to feel included. But no, she just likes the crackers.

So, are there bad gluten-free foods? Absolutely. But there are also some pretty terrible “regular” foods out there. I remember them. So, let’s not let a few poor product choices speak for the entire population of gluten-free options.

One thing I have learned over the years is that being gluten-free doesn’t mean I have to settle. If I try a gluten-free product and it’s bad, I try something new the next time. It takes time to find your favorites, but there are plenty of gluten-free product reviews out there to give you a head start.

The same goes for dining out. Especially in Philly, there’s no reason to settle for the “flavorless” baked chicken and steamed vegetables (standard gluten-free fare back in the day). Instead, I talk to the server or even the chef. More often than not, they can easily prepare something that’s gluten-free and fantastic—like seared scallops with a balsamic glaze and roasted vegetables. I’d take that over a pizza any day.

To our GREAT health,

Alice Bast

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Alice Bast is President of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diagnoses of celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders and improving the quality of life for those on a lifelong gluten-free diet. NFCA is based in Ambler, PA.