Bacon over multigrain bread? Gluten-free: you already know it as the new health buzzword, but what’s it all about?
For the longest time, we believed in the power of low-fat. Skim milk over full cream, and egg whites only, please. But with the medical community now espousing the goodness of healthy fats – even ones that were previously shunned, like coconut oil – many are now rethinking the whole fats vs carbs equation, resulting in an explosion of interest in gluten-free diets in Singapore.
Here’s what you need to know about the recent craze for gluten-free foods:
Myth 1: Gluten-free means carb-free
Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, barley and rye. Which means that by giving up gluten, you can still enjoy the pleasures of a carb-filled plate. The good news for Asians is that rice remains your BFF. Potatoes? Bring them on. A variety of grains also caters to gluten-free diners – options include maize, quinoa, millet and amaranth.
The catch? Since the gluten-free diet is aimed specifically at a particular protein, not carbs in general, it’s not a shortcut to instant weight loss, or even to healthier living. But seeing how trendy the gluten-free label is, many food manufacturers have begun to slap it onto a plethora of products. So don’t be fooled into thinking that “gluten-free” translates into “healthy”. After all, marshmallows are gluten-free, and they aren’t necessarily better for you than a rye bread sandwich stuffed with greens.
Myth 2: It’s just a lifestyle thing
Unless of course, you’re a coeliac. The gluten-free diet originated in response to the growing awareness of coeliac disease, a genetic disorder that affects the small intestine’s ability to tolerate the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The intestine even mistakes gluten for germs and unleashes antibodies to fight against it, resulting in a series of symptoms. While it’s more common amongst those with a long history of wheat consumption – like Caucasians – but that doesn’t mean Singaporean restaurants shouldn’t take it seriously. “The gluten-free diet is often confused with a lifestyle or weight-loss diet, like the Atkins diet,” explains Eugene Chng, who owns and operates the gluten-free Glee Kitchen in Toa Payoh with his wife Keirra Lynn Yang, the founder of Gluten Free Singapore. “When someone sells gluten-free food without understanding the medical reason behind it, there’s a possibility of cross-contamination. And it’s coeliacs who suffer the most.” Coeliacs react to the slightest amount of gluten in their food, which means that even gluten-free ingredients prepared in the same vicinity as, say, flour or pasta, could be contaminated with gluten.
“We had a customer who went to a restaurant with gluten-free burgers,” explains Agnetta Lew, who runs Singapore’s only other wholly gluten-free kitchen – Jonathan’s – with her husband Gabriel. “But the restaurant had only one station and all food was made on the same chopping board. Her daughter, who has severe allergies, had an anaphylactic reaction to the gluten, and she ended up in the hospital.”
Myth 3: It’s only for coeliacs
“Coeliac disease isn’t prevalent in Singapore, but there are many people on the gluten-free diet for medical reasons other than coeliac disease,” adds Keirra. Famously, tennis player Novak Djokovic credits his ascent to the Number 1 ranking to his gluten-free diet. But aside from those hoping to improve their athletic performance, there are non-coeliacs who have benefited from going gluten-free as well. She cites customers who suffer from gastrointestinal issues like gastritis, people with arthritis, severe eczema and even children with special needs. “They’ve all found that it helped them,” she says. “The key thing that we advise people is – go with what your body tells you.”
Myth 4: It’s impossible to go gluten-free
As Asians, our historically rice-based diet means we’re not likely to have coeliac disease. So you don’t have to be as precious about going gluten-free as someone who is coeliac. “Singaporeans don’t run the risk of contamination, so we can have yong tau foo – with rice noodles instead of wheat noodles. But coeliacs would not be able to because the gluten is in the water,” explains Agnetta. “It is difficult, but it gets easier when you know what your triggers are. It’s fine if you cheat, as long as you can deal with the symptoms. I’m not saying you can’t eat gluten at all, but maybe not for every meal. You can choose to consume less for a better long-term future.”
So should you go off gluten?
According to Coeliac Australia, symptoms of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity include “abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloating and excessive wind, as well as lethargy, poor concentration and general aches and pains.” Consult a doctor or naturopath if you think you fit the profile and ask about the gluten-free diet.
By Kit Chua, CLEO, September 2014