What is a gluten-free (GF) diet?
Gluten is what gives bread dough its stretchy quality. It is an integral part of wheat, barley, rye, and spelt (as well as lesser known grains such as kamut and triticale). People who have sensitivities to gluten (found most significantly in wheat products) can range from having a wheat allergy to celiac disease. Eliminating gluten from the diet (an arduous task for those who have to do it since current labeling laws do not require mention of gluten) is a first line of defense in treating celiac disease.
Who else can benefit from a GF diet?
Not only those with a gluten sensitivity may need to follow a GF diet. Although the research is not completely documented, symptoms of autism spectrum disorders as well as ADD/ADHD have been found to lessen after eliminating gluten (and in some cases, casein, a key ingredient in dairy products). Dermatitis herpetiformis (classified as severe itching rash found on behind the elbows and knees) has been considered either a separate disorder (treated with a GF diet) or as a symptom of celiac disease (which can only be diagnosed with a blood test and an endoscopy).
You didn't mention oats. Don't they contain gluten?
Currently, oats are a controversial subject in celiac circles. Technically, oats lack the gluten protein and therefore should not be a problem for most people with the sensitivity. The key concern is that oats can be cross-contaminated with glutinous grains in their processing. There are a few sources for certified non-contaminated oats. However, these are quite expensive. Since I do not think I am celiac, I freely use oat flour (rolled oats ground in a food processor). [Please see the post about Laws of Bread for the Celiac Observant Jew for more information.]
So, no bread, no pasta, what's left for me?
Quite a bit actually. Conventional starches such as potatoes, rice, and corn are still available. Use this opportunity to open your eyes to an entire world of almost-forgotten grains, all of them have unique tastes that expand your repetoire: amaranth, millet (not just for bird seed anymore), and quinoa. The basis of comfort foods, like tapioca (pudding) and buckwheat (pancakes), are also permitted. The good news is that many of these foods can be made into an assortment of flours (along with legume and nut flours), which will provide you with hours of baking pleasure.
Low-carb diets were big several years ago. Isn't gluten-free just another "fad diet"?
Not for the 1 in 200 Americans who have gluten sensitivity in one form or another. (For every diagnosed case, there are approximately a dozen people suffering in silence, completing unaware of the long-term effects.) A "classic" celiac case is a person whose body does not completely absorb nutrients in food. This could cause a person to be too thin, unable to gain weight no matter what, or heavy, from the need to overeat as an attempt to satisfy nutrition requirements. There is a lot of buzz currently about gluten-free as well as a surge of GF products storming the market. People may inevitably turn to it as a fad diet but it will just as soon fade for some of these people once it gets "too boring".
I may have the sensitivity, but don't want to put my whole family on the diet, what should I do?
For those who observe the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), we are already familiar with the stringencies of separating meat and dairy products from each other. Being the only GF person in a family requires the same attention (for those with severe allergies). Reactions can occur from a "double-dipped" knife in mayonnaise or cream cheese. [GF people can keep separate containers of these products for themselves.] Cutting boards and cooking utensils have to be cleaned with hot soapy water in between use. Keep your GF products clearly marked and away from the other foods and you should not have too many problems with cross-contamination.
Since processed food may not be clearly labeled "gluten-free", what else do I need to know?
Obviously, you know to avoid the flours of those offending grains. However, wheat, barley, rye, and spelt have several aliases on ingredient lists. Steer clear of these "code words": modified food starch (may be derived from wheat), hydrolyzed vegetable protein (commonly found in canned tuna fish), and malt flavoring.
What about alcoholic beverages?
Wine is still safe as well as distilled liquor from non-glutinous sources (such as rum and potato vodka). There is currently on the market beer made from sorghum (another gluten-free "grain"). However, at $8.99 per 6 pack, it is better reserved for special occasions.