Being diagnosed with coeliac disease at 22 brought on a number of feelings. The first was happiness. I finally knew what was ‘wrong' with me. Then I was afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Would this mean I couldn't eat liquorice or drink beer anymore? (Good news - gluten-free liquorice and beer exists!). Could I explain my disease to my friends and family, let alone colleagues and waitstaff when eating out? Yes, I could.
I educated myself about coeliac disease and gluten to make this easier on myself and those around me. Would this mean I could no longer enjoy dinner with friends? No, it certainly did not.
Actually, I think that I possibly share food with friends more now than before and funnily enough I think I am a better friend now because of my diagnosis. My preference for homemade gluten-free food over store-bought means that I'm often tinkering in the kitchen. Four times out of five times, when I visit a friend, I'll bring something to share - and rarely is anyone unhappy to see a friend who brings food!
For those who wonder what a recent diagnosis means for their lifestyle, here are my top tips for being a good gluten-free friend.
1. Let those you love know what coeliac disease is
Coeliac disease (spelled ‘celiac’ in some countries) is an autoimmune disorder, where the body reacts irregularly to gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. (For information on whether oats should be avoided on a gluten-free diet, read more at the Coeliac Society of Australia's fact sheet here.)
Here's how it works: the small intestine has tiny, finger-like protrusions, called villi, which are responsible for the absorption of nutrients. When gluten is consumed by someone with coeliac disease, they become short stubs or flattened altogether and can no longer absorb the nutrients, leading to a number of gastrointestinal issues. Coeliac disease can be triggered at any time in one’s life and so far, the only 'cure' is a life-long gluten-free diet.
2. Explain the difference between gluten-free and wheat-free
A simple way to explain this conundrum is the fact that all wheat contains gluten, but not all gluten comes from wheat. Being wheat-free means avoiding all wheat products, including semolina, spelt, couscous and burghul (bulgar). Being gluten-free means cutting out all grains that contain gluten, not just wheat.
According to the Australian Standards, all food containing gluten and wheat should clearly indicate this on the packaging. An allergen statement will also feature below the ingredients list, stating whether the product contains (or may contain) traces of wheat or gluten.
Understanding the difference will make it easier for your friends to understand what you need to avoid.
3. There are plenty of foods you can eat, so let everyone know it!
It’s true that gluten is in a lot of processed foods. But let's focus instead on the positives. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and unprocessed meats are gluten-free naturally, along with most dairy products. You'll also find gluten-free grains available, and a number of pseudo grains (amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa included) containing wonderful nutritional benefits.
Gluten-free baking is completely achievable thanks to the increasing availability of gluten-free ‘flours’, including those made from rice, corn, tapioca, buckwheat, teff, sorghum, soya, lentil and potato, along with nut meals. Try out a few varieties in flourless cakes, which are not only scrumptious but easy to make, too. If friends ask what else they can make, tell them pavlova! Not only is it one of Australia's favourite desserts, but it's also naturally gluten-free. (Be sure to check the cornflour though, you want 100 per cent cornflour, not wheaten cornflour.)
If you don't want to give up your glutenous favourites – bread, pasta, cereals, cakes and biscuits – then, by all means, go for their gluten-free counterparts in the supermarkets. These specially made gluten-free alternatives might differ in flavour (and/or texture), to what you were used to, and they can be rather costly. It's also worth noting, some pre-packaged gluten-free foods contain a higher amount of sugar and are made with higher GI (glycaemic index) ingredients than their glutenous counterparts, so they're not necessarily healthier. (Newly-diagnosed coeliacs might find that as your body repairs itself, it can gain weight. This is because the body is beginning to absorb the nutrients previously expelled thanks to damage to the small intestine.)
4. Gluten-free dinner parties are totally doable!
So your friend has invited you over for dinner and is happy to cater to your gluten-free needs? Awesome!
Depending on your pal's cooking prowess, it might be worth pointing them in the direction of naturally gluten-free foods. If they're stuck for ideas, suggest a meaty centrepiece like chicken tikka masala, slow-roasted lamb shoulder with yoghurt and cumin, or even Greek moussaka. (This version features a cauliflower béchamel so there's no flour involved)
It's also a good idea to mention that gluten hides in many unexpected places. For instance, chicken tikka masala has chicken stock in it, and some store-bought stocks contain gluten as a thickener, or barley and malt. Let your friend know which brands are safe for you. That lamb shoulder we mentioned is smothered in yoghurt before cooking. Greek yoghurt should be naturally gluten-free, however, some varieties contain thickeners.
Be on call for any "Does this contain gluten?" questions! If your friend has queries when purchasing groceries, ask them to take a photo of the ingredients list and send it to you to check. That way, both of you can be 100 per cent sure. You can also double-check all of the ingredients before your friend serves so that if a dish does contain gluten, you'll know to avoid it and to use separate serving utensils between bowls.
5. Thank your friends (possibly with cake)
Brush up on your gluten-free baking skills and make your thoughtful friend something to say thank you – perhaps my banana hazelnut cake? They'll appreciate the gesture and, if they don't already know it, discover just how delicious gluten-free baking can be.
A note on eating out
When dining out at restaurants it's worth calling ahead to confirm whether they can cater to your gluten-free requirements and if the food is prepared in a safe gluten-free environment. Most restaurant staff in Australia are well versed on gluten-free requirements.
With a love of food that began when she pottered around her mum's commercial kitchen as a little girl, photographer and keen baker Jasmine Ann Gardiner’s passions were channelled into one place when, after her coeliac diagnosis, she created The Gluten Free Scallywag, a blog sharing a collection of delicious gluten-free recipes. She also publishes The Gluten Free Scallywag magazine.