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Is Gluten-Free Right for Me?

May is celiac disease awareness month. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder resulting in damage to the lining of the small intestine from consuming the protein gluten. Damage to the small intestine prevents the body from absorbing nutrients and may lead to nutrient deficiencies, infertility, nervous system disorders, anemia, bone disease, and cancer. Only 1% of the population has celiac disease; however, 83% of cases are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other health conditions.

There are over 300 known symptoms of celiac disease, although some individuals have no symptoms at all. Two of the most significant risk factors for celiac disease are having someone else in the family with the disease or the presence of another autoimmune disorder such as type one diabetes. The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. So, is following a gluten-free diet a healthy option for individuals without celiac disease? “Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or your doctor recommends removing gluten from the diet, it is not recommended to cut any nutrient, including gluten,” Lisa Peterson, Nutrition and Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension explains. Highly processed gluten-free foods may be higher in sugar, fat, and sodium doing more harm than good for those without celiac disease.

For individuals with celiac disease, finding gluten-free foods may be difficult. “Foods like baked beans, canned soups, seasonings, candy, maltodextrin, beer, stuffing, soy sauce, marinades, pudding, bouillon, and gravies are just a few foods with hidden sources of gluten,” Peterson clarifies. Oats, although naturally gluten-free, are often contaminated with wheat when processed. You should purchase oats that are specifically labeled gluten-free. Additionally, if a food does not contain wheat, it does not mean it is gluten-free. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. Reading the nutrition facts label is the easiest way to identify if the food is gluten-free. Many naturally, gluten-free food are often still labeled gluten-free such as milk, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, corn, butter, eggs, beans, seeds, honey, and fresh seafood. Single-ingredient foods such as fruits and vegetables are also naturally gluten-free.

Baking gluten-free may also be tricky. Gluten provides elasticity and the light, airy structure in bread and other grains. Gluten-free baked products stale faster and have a denser texture. Aside from flour, some starch thickeners and vanilla extracts can be a source of gluten. Gluten-free flour is a simple substitute in recipes for cookies, but for breads, cakes, pancakes, and quick breads, it might require a combination of gluten-free flour and guar and xanthan gum that add volume and texture. The general recommendation is anywhere between ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon xanthan gum per cup of flour. Store all gluten-free baked goods in airtight containers and refrigerate to reduce dryness. “Baking gluten-free is a trial and error process, try different flour blends and gums, or buy already prepared gluten-free mixes,” Peterson suggests. Adding an extra egg, more oil, or milk will also prevent baked goods from turning out too dry or crumbly. If someone else in the household does not have celiac disease, have dedicated gluten-free baking pans, storage containers, and utensils to prevent cross-contamination. For additional questions about preparing gluten-free food, reading labels, food safety, recipes, or other nutrition questions, contact the local extension office.

Gluten Free Cranberry Banana Bread

Makes 12 servings

1 ½ cup mashed bananas (3 bananas)

1 tablespoon cinnamon

3 large eggs

2 cups blanched almond flour

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon baking soda

2 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce

1 ½ cup cranberries (or 1 ¼ cup dried cranberries)

  1. Wash hands with soap and water.
  2. Mix bananas, vanilla, eggs, honey, and applesauce together.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.
  4. Combine wet and dry ingredients.
  5. Use a food processor or blender to chop up cranberries and add to batter.
  6. Scoop batter into a non-stick 8 x 4 loaf pan.
  7. Bake at 350°F for 60 minutes; insert a knife in the center to check doneness. When done, the knife should come out clean.

Nutrition Facts per serving: 130 calories, 9 g. total fat, 8 g. carbohydrates, 3 g. dietary fiber, 430 mg sodium, 5 g. protein


Questions about food safety, nutrition, food preservation, or looking for recipes? Contact the local University of Illinois Extension office.

Source: Lisa Peterson, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness