Gluten-free is far from free

By Cassina Brown

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Some human bodies do not have the enzymes necessary to process this ingredient, found in an astounding variety of processed foods. This condition is characteristic of Celiac disease, a very serious diagnosis. But more common is the choice to avoid gluten by folks who are intolerant to, or allergic to the protein.


Gluten-free diets used to be only for people diagnosed with Celiac disease or with a wheat allergy, so just five years ago when my doctors and I figured out that I was gluten intolerant, the whole idea was virtually unheard of. If I wanted gluten-free products, I had to travel to my special health food store where they ordered special products which I tested for them. I was one of their only gluten-free customers. At the time, there were a limited number of companies producing packaged gluten-free goods.

My mom started experimenting with recipes and made me gluten-free bread from scratch, because the options available in the store were frozen and strongly resembled cardboard in taste and texture. Her bread was wonderful, and I was shocked and refreshed that food without gluten could be so satisfying.

I have always been a fan of cooking, and when I had to eliminate wheat, barley, rye and most malts from my diet and my cooking, I was devastated. Then I figured out that gluten-free food could be just as good as regular food, as long as the cook understood the right substitutions. I have since been cooking all of my own gluten-free foods –

cookies, cakes, breads and whatever I want. I have done my homework and figured out where rice flour can replace wheat flour, and where tapioca starch and corn flour can replace rye flour.

I personally have not had too much of a problem adjusting, but for the rest of the dieters out there who aren’t interested in cooking and have no options other than purchasing gluten free goods in stores, it is another situation.

Today, gluten-free diets are all the rage. It eliminates refined flours from your diet and is a quick way to lose weight. People with no medical condition or reason to avoid wheat, barley and rye are going gluten-free and feeling good about it. Instead of going to a special store for the products, every supermarket has a gluten-free alternative on the shelf next to their regular products. It’s great. Or is it?

The thing about this kind of food, even though it is all the rage, is that companies who produce packaged foods which are marketed as “gluten-free” know that the portion of the population who have a reason to avoid gluten have no choice but to pay astronomical prices for these products. Every producer of gluten-free pasta manufactures eight-ounce boxes of pasta instead of the standard pound, and these half-pound boxes cost no less than $4 each. Regular semolina wheat pasta costs no more than $2 for a pound; the gluten-free option costs double the amount.

The cost of this dietary choice is outrageous, and it is all due to manufacturers who know that their niche market will pay, because they must. The answer? Just because you see a $7 bag of animal cookies on the shelf that is marked “gluten-free” doesn’t mean you should buy it. Would regular animal crackers be on your shopping list if you were a regular shopper? No. The words “gluten-free” convince you to buy something you wouldn’t need anyways.

To all you gluten-free eaters out there – first of all, cut it out, stop paying for food you wouldn’t buy in the first place. Secondly, going gluten-free means stepping into the world of do-it-yourself. You could pay $10 for a box of gluten-free quick risotto with spinach and mushrooms, or you could do your research and learn that risotto is gluten-free naturally, and you could make that same risotto for much less if you purchased a $3 bag of Arborio rice and some veggies.

Stop spending ridiculous amounts on gluten-free frozen breaded chicken cutlets, and make a gluten-free bread from one of the easily accessible recipes online. Make some breadcrumbs, grab some bags of gluten-free flour that you will get more than one meal out of and bread your own chicken for the price of a package of chicken. It is worth the investment to stock your kitchen with gluten-free flours and ingredients and gain a little knowledge on the diet. I promise, it will pay off and you will save yourself some gluten-free dough.

Cassina Brown is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]