Sweet, No Wheat
When Carol Fenster of Denver, Colorado, came down with yet another sinus infection, she reached her limit. The stuffed-up, foggy feeling she had suffered for years had become chronic and debilitating. A food allergist determined that the culprit was wheat. Later, she learned that the real problem was gluten, a protein found naturally in wheat and other cereal grains—and therefore, much to Fenster's dismay, in most breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods. (Gluten is also added to many processed foods.) "The gluten wasn't digesting properly, which was causing serious inflammation," she says.
This was sobering news for someone who was raised on a wheat farm in eastern Nebraska and had married, you guessed it, a wheat farmer. "It was heresy to say I couldn't eat wheat," says Fenster. "The news did not go over well with my family." Yet Fenster realized her sinuses had been bothersome since high school. After her visit to the allergist, she eliminated wheat from her diet, along with barley, kamut, rye, spelt, triticale, and any other grains containing gluten. Her symptoms soon disappeared, and she felt like a new person. That was 20 years ago, and she's been gluten free ever since.
All You Can Eat
According to a 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, more than 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, a gluten intolerance that damages the small intestine and prevents food from being properly absorbed.
And while there are no official statistics on nonceliac gluten intolerance, Stephen Wangen, director of the IBS Treatment Center and the Center for Food Allergies in Seattle and the author of Healthier Without Wheat, estimates that 10 percent of the U.S. population (30 million people) are intolerant, and most don't know it. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are associated with more than 200 health problems, including chronic abdominal pain, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, migraine attacks, sinus infections, and depression.
Inspired by stories like Fenster's, of people going gluten free and getting relief from chronic symptoms, more and more people are experimenting with eliminating gluten from their diet. There is no scientific evidence that eating a lot of gluten is bad for those without an intolerance or celiac disease. But if you suspect you're sensitive to gluten, you might want to explore alternatives to wheat.
Besides, wheat isn't the only nutritious grain you can cook with. Millet, for example, contains good amounts of magnesium and potassium, and a little vitamin E. Then there are the pseudocereals (seeds of broadleaf plants that are treated like grains): Quinoa is filled with protein, iron, and calcium, with a mix of B vitamins; amaranth has all of that, plus carotenoids and other phytonutrients.
But when Fenster first started out with a gluten-free diet, the only available alternative to wheat flour, she says, was made from rice. "I was trying to take the all-American diet—breads, cakes, and cookies—and make it gluten free," she says, "but they came out heavy and didn't taste good. It wasn't something you'd serve to family and friends."
Then about 10 years ago, Fenster started noticing other flours, like sorghum, which has a consistency similar to that of whole-wheat flour, popping up in her grocery store. "A whole new world opened up to me," she says. "At first, we were told to use just one flour, but I experimented with blending sorghum, potato starch, and even tapioca flour, which gave my baked goods more body and shape."
It turned out, too, that these new options tasted pretty good. Experimenting with the new flours and taking lots of notes led Fenster to thousands of recipes that she and her whole family could enjoy together, even though she was the only one with a gluten intolerance. "Now, I actually prefer the taste of foods made with nongluten flours," she says.
Try it for yourself: Begin with your favorite recipes, replacing wheat with any of these alternatives or a homemade baking mix that Fenster recommends. Go in knowing that the taste and texture will change. For example, pancakes might be a little hearty and have a slight sweetness even without fruit and syrup toppings. In many cases, gluten-free flours can actually improve baked goods such as cupcakes, which can toughen when a wheat-flour batter is mixed too much and overdevelops the gluten.
So whether you're curious about the effects of a gluten-free diet on your own body or simply want to have fun with flours that will stretch the imagination, it's good to have so many tasty alternatives to wheat.
Karen Kelly is a freelance writer and author.