Since discovering that gluten is one of my inflammation triggers, it has been tempting to blame all of my autoimmune woes on that troublesome little protein, and make eradicating gluten from my diet my primary focus. Alas, this is not the case, as I learned over the winter, when I started to slack off and eat a little more sugar and dairy than I should have. I also let myself indulge in quite a few processed foods, lured by their gluten free promises: GF bread, GF crackers, GF pastas, GF cereals. This was a mistake, as my achey joints and plummeting energy levels quickly communicated.
With a renewed commitment to an anti-inflammatory, whole foods eating plan, I was simultaneously tempted by and skeptical of the Gluten and Allergen Free Expo which came to Des Moines last weekend, April 6-7. On the one hand, I am new to the world of gluten-free living, and could use all the advice I can get. On the other hand, I worried the Expo would be a processed food free-for-all with little to offer someone like me, who is striving to live without these convenience foods. As I dithered about whether or not to attend, serendipity gave me a nudge: the Midwestern Gentleman and I won free tickets to the Expo in a random drawing at the “East” Hy-Vee supermarket in Ames. (Thanks, Hy-Vee!) So, we went.
It was a valuable experience to see so many gluten-free living resources gathered in one space, even though it wasn’t entirely the right fit for me. I can really appreciate what the Expo is trying to achieve, increasing the visibility of gluten intolerance and Celiac disease, and promoting products that make gluten free living easier. There were, as I expected, a lot of processed food products being hawked at the Expo, and unfortunately, a majority of these were laden with too much sugar, salt, and preservatives to be a safe food option for me. The focus of my anti-inflammatory diet is not just to be gluten-free, but to eat foods that are as nutrient-dense as possible. Unfortunately, many gluten-free products actually offer fewer nutrients than their gluten-containing counterparts, because the flours used to mimic wheat flour are often composed primarily of starches, especially rice and potato starches. However, I was encouraged to see that there were some nutritionally diverse, whole grain baking blends available at the Expo; you just had to be willing to read the ingredient labels carefully (something most gluten-intolerant and other food-allergic folks have grown accustomed to doing anyway!)
Even though most of the processed foods portion of the Expo did not fit in with my anti-inflammatory diet, there were other benefits of attending. Representatives offered subscriptions to and free issues of magazines like Gluten Free Living, Living Without, and Delight. While Living Without might indeed be a wonderful magazine, I just couldn’t get past the psychological hurdle of the magazine’s title. It makes me feel depressed every time I look at it. I mean, why not just call it “Deprivation Magazine”? Delight, like Living Without, is a gluten-free/allergen-free cooking magazine which catalogs each issue’s recipes by allergen type, so you can glance at a chart in the beginning and figure out right away which recipes to check out. However, Delight celebrates allergen-free food in a positive, upbeat way, instead of reminding me on the front cover of how much I’ve had to give up. I took advantage of the Expo’s 20% discounted subscription rate and signed up to receive Delight, and also went home with a free, additional back issue of the magazine to whet my appetite.
Lots of gluten free cookbooks were on offer, many of them signed by the authors. However, my favorite book was the Multi-Lingual Food Allergy Phrase Passport, part of the Let’s Eat Out! Series. According to the introduction, this handy pocket guide “is the first pocket-sized phrase guide dedicated to communicating special dietary needs when eating outside the home while managing 10 common food allergens including: corn, dairy, eggs, fish, gluten, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat.” The phrasebook includes French, German, Italian, and Spanish. I also love the Gluten Free Passport website, where you can download free food allergy dining cards translated into a dozen different languages.
While I like to talk like a purist, I did indulge in a few of the samples offered by convenience food vendors. My favorite food products offered at the Expo were those that appreciated the bigger picture nutritionally, and went beyond simply being gluten free substitutes for familiar products. The brand Enjoy Life produces a detailed, well-researched brochure used by many medical clinics to explain the basics of food allergies. All of their salty snacks and sweet treats are free of the eight major food allergens as identified by the Food Allergen Labelling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA): dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy. Way Better Snacks makes gluten free, certified non-GMO, whole grain “chips” (17 g whole grains or more per serving) with ingredients like organic, sprouted seeds and stone ground corn, and no preservatives. Did I mention they’re also delicious? The Gent and I particularly liked the Sweet Chili and Simply Sweet Potato flavors. Glutenfreeda makes instant oatmeal in interesting flavors (my favorite: Cranberry Cinnamon Flax) with a modest amount of added sugar and a decent texture. The Gent and I often take Glutenfreeda instant oatmeal packets with us on our travels. In addition to being a convenient breakfast, they’re a good emergency meal in a pinch. Finally, I was really impressed by Raw Revolution‘s 100-calorie snack bars, sweetened with dates and organic agave nectar and weighing in at 6g of sugar per serving. The Chocolate Coconut Bliss flavor of these gluten free, peanut free, dairy free, vegan, raw snackies surprised me with its deep cocoa flavor and satisfying, chewy texture. I’m considering laying in a supply of these mini-bars to use in lieu of sugary gels and gluten-laden sports bars as I train for my first half marathon.
In terms of whole foods, Thankful Harvest is a family-run, small-herd farm specializing in locally raised, organic, grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef, lamb, poultry, and eggs, delivered right to your door if you live in Central Iowa. Maybe the Gent won’t have to wait until next Easter for more Garlic and Rosemary Lamb Chops after all…
Finally, I met some lovely women from Central Iowa Celiac Connection, including Chairperson Barb Huyette, and signed up to receive their email newsletter. They assured me that everyone who is living gluten free is welcome to the group, not just those with full-blown Celiac disease. The groups holds several gluten free potlucks throughout the year in the greater Des Moines area, and provides helpful information for living gluten free on their website.
Overall, as someone adhering to an anti-inflammatory diet, I found the Gluten and Allergen Free Expo to be an event worth attending. In my case, the event required a critical eye when considering most of the processed food products, and occasionally turning a blind eye to the bakery stands laden with cupcakes, cookies, and other sugary, simple-starchy treats. However, I was pleased to see other aspects of gluten free living represented, and it was ultimately those other offerings that made the event worthwhile for me.