Does your belly sometimes bloat and you’re not sure why? Do you find you blame it on the full moon, eating late, eating too much, being stressed and a myriad of other excuses? In most cases, none of the above are true. You may be either lactose or gluten intolerant, and for me it was the gluten.
It was easy to work out the gluten free eating regime but I was curious as to why when I was growing up and when my children were growing up I had never heard of gluten or the intolerance to it or even worse still celiac disease. So I went on a crusade to find out all about gluten free eating, and found some interesting and scary things.
Wheat is the most consumed grain in the world, second only to rice. Recent research in the USA and in Europe suggests that the incidence of celiac disease has quadrupled in the last 30 years. Whilst only one per cent (these are US statistics) of the population is thought to have full blown celiac disease, many multiples of that figure may have a lesser degree of gluten intolerance that usually goes undiagnosed and undermines ones health.
Researchers in the Mayo Clinic in USA recently analysed blood samples from Air Force recruits that have been stored since the 1950s. They found that the number of positive results was far smaller than the one per cent recorded incidence of celiac disease 60 years ago. So what happened?
Over the centuries different types of wheat were cross bred to produce wheat that was needed as man and his diet evolved, during the more than 10,000 years it has been cultivated, starting in the Middle East. For example, wheat making breads require strong, elastic gluten enabling the dough to trap carbon dioxide during the rising process. However, the gluten in pasta needs to be strong and not elastic as pasta needs to be rolled into sheets so wheat exhibiting these properties was specifically selected and bred, all this only by natural cross breeding.
In the last few decades, techniques such as injecting genes and using bacteria to transfer genetic information in agrobacterial methods have been used to produce transgenetic wheat. In this manner the wheat has been genetically engineered to contain what are referred to as “funny proteins” from a variety of plant and animal sources including the fish, flounder and the mould, ergot. This genetic engineering of wheat has resulted in a crop that is no longer classified as a plant, but is now considered a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Wheat has been engineered to: produce greater yields, improve quality, be disease and insect resistant, require less nitrogen to grow, require less pesticides, be resistant to drought, tolerant to heat, but also increase the gluten content. And that is why today we all have bloated bellies that were not around 40 plus years ago.
Today, we see children and adults that are allergic to nuts and other foods, and every school has a sign warning of a child in a particular class with this very dangerous problem – a phenomenon that is contemporary, as never in my school years nor in my children’s years did I encounter this and makes me wonder what else we eat has been tampered with.
Here are some tips I have gathered along the way to avoid gluten in the daily diet. Avoid, wheat, barley (malt, malt flavouring and malt vinegar as the are made from barley), rye, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) and worst of all wheat, also oats – not because as a grain in itself it has gluten but because oats are often grown in close proximity to wheat and barley, both of which contain gluten. In addition, farmers rotate their fields so oats are often grown in the same soil wheat and barley has been grown on. Farmers also use the same equipment on the oat, wheat and barley crops creating cross contamination.
When it comes to eating gluten free in Australia, we really are the lucky country. Supermarkets, delicatessens and health food stores offer a plethora of gluten free meal ideas. Restaurants, pubs and cafes are catering for gluten free diners and always have at least one menu option for those afflicted. Even the desserts offer a gluten free option with gluten free cakes a norm on menus.
I find the Greek diet conducive to eating gluten free, as it is high in vegetable dishes. Most of the Greek vegetarian options are gluten free, the only problem is you can’t dip your crunchy loaf of bread into the tomato sauce that’s been made for your fasolia to swim in. But all the ladera can be eaten with gluten free bread or you can accompany the dish with rice or potato to balance the meal. Yemista of all kinds with meat or without as long as you don’t use breadcrumbs for the cover or in this case you can substitute with corn crumbs. Fish dishes, meat and chicken, youvarelakia, dolamadakia, a good stifado accompanied with a great mashed potato or rice. Be aware that ready made sausages have breadcrumbs in the mix so avoid. And never forget our wonderful ospria, all of which are allowed, they are high in protein and fibre and you will need to up your fibre anyway, as gluten free flours don’t have much.
Sweets are a problem for gluten free eaters in the Greek cuisine – especially if you have a sweet tooth like me – but never fear, I have tampered with many recipes and have come up with good gluten free sweets to please everyone. When making bechamel I use rice flour, when making galoktobouriko I use rice flour for the custard. The problem with the latter is the filo as it is made from flour but if you are only intolerant and not celiac you can spoil yourself as I do sometimes as a treat. Substitute semolina with polenta, it is lighter but needs a little practise to learn how to use as it takes longer to cook than semolina.
Travelling to Greece is a little tricky as gluten free products are not readily available in supermarkets but only in health food shops. If you travel to Greece and you want to keep eating gluten free log into, ask them where to shop and they will oblige. Or visit for more information on Greek food that is gluten free.
Gluten free flours and cereals include: rice, soy, corn, potato, bean chickpea flour, tapioca, arrowroot, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff, so have a play substituting these for what you would normally use.
Keep in mind that ready made wheat products are out: trahana, semolina, bulgar, couscous and beer, one of the worse offenders. All wheat pasta is out but never fear, as the food shelves are full of wonderful gluten free pasta usually made from rice flour or corn flour, they just need a minute or two extra cooking.
My personal favourite flours and cereals are made from: rice, corn, soy, and occasionally potato for that extra starch when baking. I also tend to mix the flours together especially in a cake recipe, for example: Half soy and half rice and once you get to understand these flours you can make your own combinations. Any traditional cake mixture can have the wheat flour substituted with any of these flours.
Thomas Dux keeps frozen gluten free pasty and online there are countless of sites for people who need to follow a gluten free diet, even in Greek, type in ‘Συνταγές χωρίς γλουτένη’ and several sites come up. In there somewhere I also found how to make filo for baklava and galaktobouriko, only I have not attempted to do it yet and if anyone of you out there does please let me know how it turned out.
And if you do go down the gluten free path always read the labels when you are shopping something we should all be doing anyway.