Celiacs quickly learn to be very careful about food. Drive yourself crazy careful. Drive your friends crazy careful. Inspect everything twice crazy.
Our special kind of crazy means spending a lot of time in the supermarket, thinking about what to buy. We read labels for life, not for curiosity.
Many of us want an app for that. I think that’s a bad idea.
I’m not averse to using apps in general; my phone is filled with them. But I just can’t bring myself to rely on one for food choices. There are so many drawbacks.
Which app do you use? There are many choices, not one of which is clearly "the best." Rely on the wrong one and you will get sick.
Any app, no matter how good, can become outdated. Companies change ingredients and the app owners don’t know, or delay their updates. Result? Wrong purchase, and you get sick.
Your phone battery can go dead, or you might not have wifi access. If you can’t interpret the label, you make a blind choice. Result? Wrong purchase and you get sick.
Apps don’t cover everything What if you want to buy something that’s not covered on the app? Either you purchase something that makes you sick, or you deny yourself something safe.
Unless, of course you read the label.
Read the label instead
The real secret to surviving and thriving on a gluten free diet is knowledge. Knowing what to avoid and what is safe to include. This knowledge comes from processing the information yourself, not relying on an electronic helper to do it for you. Knowledge is power. When the topic is your health the more power you have, the better.
How to buy gluten free food without an app
I was diagnosed in the 1990s, before apps were even a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye. Finding safe food required learning to read and interpret labels. These are the tips I give every new celiac I meet about reading what's written on the package.
Buy real food. The easiest fix is often the hardest. So many people now eat pre-prepared, processed foods. After being diagnosed with celiac disease, they want to swap out one set of processed foods for another, gluten free set. But most gluten free processed foods are as unhealthy (salt, preservatives, fat, sugar) as their gluten-containing cousins. Plus most of them don’t even taste that good. No wonder new celiacs are disheartened!
Start eating real food: fruit, vegetables, meat, rice, and all the other safe items on our menu. Look for easy recipes like these and get friendly with your kitchen.
Know what’s off limits. That’s relatively easy. Wheat. Rye. Barley. Oats, unless certified gluten free (meaning they were grown without risk of cross-contamination). Spelt, kamut and triticale - all related to wheat. Regular pasta, bread, cookies, cakes and pie crusts. Most beer. Most soy sauce. Barley malt or malt syrup (often used to sweeten cereal).
Buying real food has another benefit: you don’t have to worry about the source of chemical flavors, colors or preservatives. No mysterious substances like ammonium hydrogen carbonate or glucono-delta lactone. What the heck are they?
Know what’s safe. Corn is safe. Rice (white brown, or sticky, AKA glutinous rice) is gluten free. So are potatoes, and any other vegetable, fruit, meat or pure spice. Far more foods are safe than unsafe.
Understand label statements. Each country’s equivalent of the US Food And Drug Administration (FDA) mandates what food manufacturers must tell consumers about their products. Learn what your country’s label statements mean.
In the US, FDA regulations currently set a limit of 20 parts per million (20 ppm) of gluten for any product labeled gluten free. Why 20 ppm instead of 0? Because 20 ppm is, as of today, the lowest amount of gluten that scientific tests can detect in a food. Anything less than 20 ppm will register in the test as ‘no gluten found,’ even if that item contains 19 ppm of gluten. So that product marked gluten free might be truly gluten free, if it has no gluten-containing ingredients, or it might just have less than 20 ppm of gluten. You can’t judge that without looking at the label.
Understand what statements like ‘may contain trace amounts of gluten,’ or ‘processed in a facility that also produces products containing wheat’ really mean for you.
Know yourself. Celiac disease is affects each person differently. What makes you violently ill might only give me a headache. I know from experience that something I have eaten several times without a problem might one day make me violently sick, and I might not be able to figure out why.
In real life, this means doing our best to eliminate all gluten, knowing that sometimes we’re going to get glutened and be sick. The secret is to reduce the number of glutenings to as few as possible.
There are no miracle cures for celiac disease, no silver bullets, no magic pills. Certainly no perfect app. There’s only the gluten free diet, and the world’s first and best app: your educated mind.