Talking about gluten free eating with Jennifer Gornto of GlutenFreeJacksonville.com
1. Can you explain what gluten is, where it's found, and why some people need to avoid it?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat. It's what makes bread chewy, doughy, and delicious. It's not only found in obvious places like pizza, bread, and pasta but it's also a preservative, so it's hidden in many things. It's also in soy sauce. Not everyone needs to avoid gluten. For people with celiac disease avoiding gluten is crucial. Celiac disease impacts your small intestine and it blocks your body from absorbing crucial nutrients like vitamin D, iron and B12. There are a lot of people who are gluten intolerant - they can have minuscule amounts of gluten but need to avoid it as much as possible.
People who are avoiding gluten for dietary reasons - eliminating bread, pastas and pizza - sometimes fall into the trap of substituting gluten free alternatives that are higher in fat and sugar. Another thing to watch if you're eating gluten free is your intake of fiber. Wheat is high in fiber and is often a main source of fiber for many people. People with celiac disease often take fiber supplements because a lot of gluten free foods don't contain fiber. Good gluten-free sources of fiber are nuts and fruit.
2. How long have you been eating gluten free?
Since I was diagnosed with celiac disease in November of 2009.
3. How did you know you had celiac disease? What were the symptoms?
I probably had celiac disease for about a year before it was confirmed. I was really fatigued and went to my doctor for that. The results of the blood test showed that I was really low in vitamin B12 and iron. I started taking supplements for those, however, I'm a pretty healthy eater and it surprised me that I would be low in iron and B12. I started noticing some changes in how I felt when I would eat. I was very hungry and was eating a lot of food without gaining weight. On top of all that I was moodier than normal and I had a lot of stomach issues. I started doing a lot of research online and saw things about celiac disease. I'd never heard of it before. I went to my doctor and said that I suspected I may have celiac disease. I have an amazing doctor - she wasn't sure about my having celiac disease but she referred me to get tested. There's an antibody test that's done as an initial blood test before doing any of the more invasive tests. When it came back it was positive for antibodies which could have meant I had celiac disease. With that my doctor referred me to an endocrinologist who recommended that I get an endoscopy and colonoscopy. The real confirmatory test is done when they take a biopsy of your small intestine near the duodenum which is part of the endoscopy. The duodenum is a real key part of nutrient absorption. After my procedure my doctor suspected that I had celiac disease because the villi that absorb nutrients in my small intestine were damaged.
4. How do people get celiac disease?
It's thought to be genetic although I don't know anyone else in my family who has it. It may be brought on by having other autoimmune diseases or disorders. I'm not really sure how I got it. Some people speculate that it's from being introduced to gluten really early in childhood, before a child is supposed to have things like cereal. Some people can have it without showing symptoms. It's something I developed later in life. I know for sure that I didn't have it growing up.
5. When you were diagnosed with celiac disease and started to eat gluten free, how long did it take to notice a difference?
I probably started feeling better within a few days but within a week I really noticed it. It happened really fast. They tell you when you get tested to keep eating gluten because your body is so resilient it will start to heal right away and if someone goes gluten free before they're diagnosed they may not show symptoms. It's amazing how fast you start to feel better.
6. When you went cold turkey, did your gluten intolerance get worse?
I don't really know. Everyone who has celiac disease or gluten intolerance is impacted differently. I know a lot of people who throw up right away if they even have a drop of gluten. I have more of a delayed reaction so I never know exactly what's made me sick. It's a challenge. I try to keep track of things I eat and I can usually tell the next day what it is that's made me sick.
7. When you started eating gluten free did you change the types of food you were eating or did you keep the same types of food but look for gluten free alternatives?
I went in stages. Most people have no clue when they first start. I remember when I first went to the grocery store, I walked around for an hour. I didn't know what I could eat and though I was a pretty healthy eater I was really thrown off by this HUGE change in my diet. It's easier now because I know what I like and what I can eat. At first I thought that whenever something says gluten free I'm going to get it, not thinking about things like cross contamination, healthiness of the food, or taste. I bought a lot of gluten free crackers and bread because that's what I thought I was supposed to do. Now I follow more of a clean eating diet, which means I cook a lot and spend a lot of time preparing my food. I try to eat more fruits, vegetables and meats, staying away from processed foods. I do eat gluten free bread because I like to have toast every once in a while. I'll have gluten free pasta every now and then. There are also a few bakeries I can go to if I'm craving a cupcake. I try not to rely on the substitutes because so many of them are higher in fat, sugar and calories. Just like anyone should I try to rely less on processed foods and more on whole foods.
8. How do you rate the tastiness of gluten free food?
It's trial and error. I've eaten a lot of things that taste terrible. It's never going to taste exactly the same as the gluten containing option. You need to find what you like, which is a process that takes time. There are a lot of great resources online and support groups where people share what brands they like but really it is up to the person to try different things because what is tasty to one person might not be to another.
9. Are restaurants catering more to gluten free today?
Just in the past 4 years since my diagnosis I've seen a huge change. People are becoming aware of what gluten free is and more and more restaurants have gluten free menus. The one thing I see is that a lot of chain restaurants are the ones with the gluten free menus. I used to love trying new restaurants. When somewhere new opened up I always wanted to go check it out. I'm a little more apprehensive nowadays because I don't know what their procedures are. I end up eating at a lot of the same restaurants now, whereas I used to go out to a new restaurant almost every week.
10. What procedures does a restaurant need to follow if they're going to offer gluten free options?
You can have gluten free food but it doesn't necessarily mean it's been prepared gluten free. One of my issues with a lot of restaurants that have gluten free menus is that they don't always do anything different behind the scenes. For example, they may have a gluten free salad by they make it in the same bowl that just had gluten containing dressing and croutons. Or they may use the same spoon they'd used to scoop up a gluten containing pasta and a gluten free pasta. I want to know a restaurant has gluten free food but I also need to know that they're taking the proper precautions so that my food isn't cooked on the same grill used to toast hamburger buns.
11. How do you find out if a restaurant has the proper procedures in place?
I first talk to the waiter. If the person waiting on me seems confused or has never heard of gluten then I will usually ask if there's someone I can talk to. It's important to be respectful because it's something I need to do for my health but I also don't want to upset the person who is going to go out of their way to help me. And usually they have no problem helping. The managers are usually very helpful and they want to do the right thing. Food allergies are becoming more and more important to restaurants because they're starting to see it as a liability. If you approach it in the right way they'll tend to listen and to want to help you.
12. Are there certain restaurants that do an exceptional job of training their staff on the issues around gluten free eating?
PF Chang's is probably the best in Jacksonville. They use separate dishes for their gluten free items. Their staff is very knowledgeable. Their whole system is set up to help people avoid any allergies that they have. It's all electronic. They have a separate area and separate utensils for different foods. And their food is great too!
The staff at Chipotle is very good. Often, one person will prepare my Burrito Bowl for me - walking down the line and not touching the surface of the table at all.
Those are two places that really stand out as far as knowing the procedures. I also love Bonefish Grill - they do a great job. They have a gluten free menu and they prepare things exactly how I need.
Mellow Mushroom and Your Pie are two places that prepare gluten free pizza in a separate area, away from their regular pizza. They take all the precautions to keep their pizza safe.
13. In one of your BLOG entries you talk about taking your own pizza to Mellow Mushroom. Is that something you need to do very often when you eat out?
When I wrote that post Mellow Mushroom wasn't yet offering a gluten free pizza. Pizza is one of those things that when I see someone else eating it I will want it myself. So I just called them ahead and asked if it was okay. I've probably done that 3 or 4 other times for pizza because I'm a little wary of pizza places, especially because they may throw the dough in the air and it's difficult to prevent cross contamination when that happens.
A lot of places are more than happy to accommodate people with special requirements. For example, many restaurants will allow you to bring your own gluten free bun if you want a hamburger. Most restaurants want you to come and enjoy yourself. If you're coming with a group of people they know that others will be there buying their food. And if they don't carry what you need for your health they'll try their best to make you comfortable. I've never had an instance where a restaurant hasn't allowed me to bring something.
I probably bring my own gluten free beer to restaurants more than any other item. There are a lot of great new breweries in town and I want to be a part of that environment. If they don't offer gluten free beer I'll just call ahead and ask if I can bring my own. I always let them know ahead of time or when I get there, just to respect them, and to educate them. Part of bringing my own gluten free beer is to let them know that there might be a market for gluten free beer if they decided to make their own.
14. Is there gluten in wine?
I've never heard of it. Wine on its own doesn't have gluten. I've heard there are some wine makers who use flour in their oak barrels as a way to seal the barrels but I've read that it's a practice that isn't used much any more. I assume that all wine is gluten free nowadays. I've never had a problem with gluten in wine.
15. We've heard that some restaurants have separate menus for gluten free items. Have you heard of that?
The normal case, for restaurants that don't have a formal gluten free menu, is to have a list for the servers to educate them about what the gluten free options are. It's not really a separate menu, but more of a guide for the servers to help guests choose options that are gluten free. It tells them things like what substitutions can be made to ensure a dish is gluten free.
16. If someone thinks they've come in contact with gluten after ordering a gluten free meal is there anything you'd recommend them to do in terms of letting the restaurant know?
If I have a bad experience I generally just don't go back. Because I don't always know for sure where I've come into contact with gluten it's difficult to say that I encountered it during a particular meal.
I once went to a place that followed all the proper procedures and was even certified for celiac awareness. I could tell the server was either tired or was bothered by my questions and was quick to say yes to everything I asked. I ended up getting sick that night and was pretty sure it was associated with a gluten free cookie I ordered that wasn't really gluten free. I probably should have spoken to the restaurant because they'd want to know. It was most likely one person having a bad night and it doesn't mean the restaurant itself is bad.
17. On the faster food side, which are the restaurants that stand out to you for their gluten free offerings?
Wendy's has good gluten free options, like their chili and baked potato. Chick Fil A has gluten free french fries and offers grilled chicken nuggets. First Watch does a good job for breakfast. Cookie Momsters is a gluten free bakery and has the best cupcakes. Even my boyfriend, who doesn't need to eat gluten free, loves their baking. Taco Lu does a good job. Larry's Giant Subs just started offering gluten free sub rolls and wraps. They are also very good with their procedures to avoid cross contamination.
18. Are there any restaurants that have a LOT of gluten free options?
PF Chang's has a lot of options. Many times restaurants don't always have everything listed as a gluten free item though. Sometimes they'll just point out that what they do have can come as a gluten free offering. A lot of the made to order restaurants do a good job, but those are typically the higher end restaurants.
For me it's still a lot of trial and error. I try not to get upset if I get glutened, I just try to learn from it. It's easy to get very frustrated. If something happens and I get sick I try to think of what I can do next time to do better. I might avoid a particular restaurant, or maybe I'll try to have a better conversation with the server, or involve the manager. You do put a lot of trust in people. When they say they're going to prepare you meal gluten free and avoid cross contamination you trust them to do so. I'm not in the kitchen so I can't be 100% sure they're doing what they say.
19. What about desserts?
Bonefish Grill has a flourless chocolate torte that's really good. Tom Gray, who used to be at Bistro Aix, has made meringue cookies for me that were really good. We did a tasting at Bistro Aix one time and he made all these awesome gluten free desserts. He made a carrot cake from scratch that was amazing. I am excited to try his new restaurant Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails.
20. Do you have any favorite gluten free dishes?
The things I love the most now are pretty well the same things I loved before when I could have gluten. I love a nicely cooked pork tenderloin, made with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. Those are still things I like to order on the menu. Then there's the side of me that wants to order what I can't have. I love a good hamburger. And I love the whole hamburger, including a bun that's done gluten free. There's a new restaurant called Epik Burger. They have gluten free beer battered onion rings, which is so exciting because it's something I never thought I'd eat again. It's not that I need to eat it a lot but it's nice to know there are options.
21. Are there any grocery stores that cater particularly well to gluten free eaters?
Oh yes! Native Sun and Whole Foods are amazing. There are so many options there. They're fantastic. Even Publix is doing a good job - they have a whole section that's gluten free. Winn Dixie has a few stores with good gluten free selections too.
22. Are there any brands of products that you really like?
Udi's is probably the best gluten free brand; I love it! They're primarily baked goods - pizza crusts, muffins, cookies, and things like that. Their bread is the best pre-made bread in my opinion. Publix sells a lot of their items. Then there's Pamela's is a brand of pre-made mixes so you can make your own bread, muffins, cupcakes and cakes. They're a good brand if you want to make something yourself. Namaste is another brand - they make seasonings and bread. I love their seasoning to make chicken. It's almost like it's breaded but it's gluten free, and it has no soy or dairy. Lastly, a brand that's really good is Glutino. They make crackers, cookies and prepared meals, like fettuccine Alfredo and lasagna.
23. Are the gluten free beers good or are they more like the alcohol free beers - they serve a purpose but aren't exciting?
In general, gluten free beers don't taste as good as normal beer, but as an option they're not bad. There are some good ones, and I've probably tried them all. You've got your Redbridge which is probably the one that's the most prevalent out there because it's a Budweiser product. There's 2 new ones that are really awesome - Omission and New Planet Pale Ale. New Planet is a dedicated, gluten free brewery out of Colorado. They have a raspberry, a lager, a pale ale and a stout. They're generally pretty strong tasting and heavy. Because of the calories and how filling they are I usually only have one or two at a sporting event or as a reward after a day of beach volleyball.
24. How does being gluten free impact your running?
Before I was diagnosed, when I thought I had celiac disease but before it was confirmed, I would run long distances and be very tired - I'd feel fatigued very quickly. Now I feel healthier being gluten free. But it's been hard to find a routine. I used to have toast or a bagel in the morning before a run, and I'd carbo-load with pasta. It was also a social thing - we'd get together with friends before a race to have pasta. Now I make my own food and generally eat by myself at home - it's just easier.
25. What do you use for carbs? Don't runners need a lot of them?
Yes. I use gluten free pasta. There's a good brand of Quinoa pasta which I feel is a little healthier than a corn based pasta. That seems to work fine for me. Sometimes I'll make a pasta bake, where I add all the ingredients and bake them together. The flavors meld together and they're really yummy.
26. Is there any food you really miss, eating gluten free?
There are some things. When I watch Man vs Food or things like that it's hard not to miss biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and things like that. You can make the dishes yourself with substitutes but it's just never going to be as good. It's not that I ate that type of food a lot, but it was just nice to know that I could treat myself every once in a while.
My boyfriend is from Chicago and we go there a lot. I love Chicago's deep dish pizza. I can eat gluten free pizza but it's never going to taste like that.
For me the biggest thing that I miss is the convenience. If I'm at a baseball game and I want to get a hot dog, I need to do so much research - can I eat a hot dog there? Do they have gluten free buns, or is it just the hot dog? There are so many things you take for granted. You might be somewhere and you just need to grab something quick - I miss the convenience of being able to grab something to eat really quick.
27. Do you find yourself eating better because your celiac disease has forced you to be more conscious about what you're eating?
You do pay more attention, especially when you eat out. At home it's easier than eating out, although the gluten free options at restaurants are usually the healthier items. Many of the things with gluten in them, like bread and pizza, aren't always the best things for you anyway. Because these items are less available in gluten free form I find myself eating more salads, grilled fish and things like that.
28. What resources are available for people who want to eat gluten free?
Celiac.org is a good resource. They have a lot of discussion boards and people writing about things related to gluten free eating. They also have tools to help people who've been newly diagnosed with celiac disease.
The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness has a website at CeliacCentral.org. They provide tools to train kitchen staff. I really want to start advocating that more restaurants get this. It's very inexpensive.
Jax Gluten Free Glutton is a BLOG is written by Mark Basch, a local Jacksonville area resident. He also writes a lot of articles for the Times-Union. He's a sports guy, so he loves talking about gluten free hamburgers, wings and beer.
When I started I just did research on gluten free blogs and recipes. There's a lot of options out there. Pinterest is amazing. I have a gluten free food section on my Pinterest account. There are so many good recipes available.
Starting to eat gluten free can be overwhelming at first. You should start with the basics. Look for foods that you already eat that are gluten free. Mexican food is great - there's so much that's gluten free. You can get corn tortillas, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese and onions. Baked tostitos are all gluten free. Sushi is gluten free, except for things with soy sauce on them. I bring my own gluten free soy sauce with me when I eat out for sushi. Edamame is great. A majority of Thai food is gluten free. There are some foods that are naturally already gluten free, so you don't have to try very hard if you're making them at home. You shouldn't feel like you have to go make gluten free pasta or lasagna. You can start with fresh vegetables, potatoes and grilled meats. Then experiment from there.