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Published May 27, 2011, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Gluten-free products can create confusion

As I perused the menu in the Italian restaurant, I noticed “available gluten-free” by several of the menu options.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

As I perused the menu in the Italian restaurant, I noticed “available gluten-free” by several of the menu options. I had just read an article about the increasing popularity of gluten-free foods, and I had noticed several new baking mixes labeled gluten-free at the grocery store. I’d also read about endorsements of these foods by some celebrities.

What is gluten and who needs to avoid it?

Gluten is the generic name for a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

People with celiac disease, also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy or celiac sprue, must avoid eating foods containing this type of protein.

About one out of 133 people has celiac disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Celiac disease has genetic ties, so if a family member has it, you are more likely to have it.

Although gluten-free food products are prompting sales, people buying the products do not necessarily have a medical reason to do so.

According to a recent food marketing survey, only about 12 percent of the people buying gluten-free foods do so because they have celiac disease. Numerous products are on grocery shelves, but the Food and Drug Administration has not released national standards for labeling foods as “gluten-free.”

Some people have promoted gluten-free diets as weight loss diets or because they perceive them to be healthier. However, if gluten-containing ingredients are removed, other ingredients are added to the food. Sometimes gluten-free foods are higher in calories and lower in fiber than their regular counterparts.

Although bread, pasta and other grain foods come to mind as gluten-containing foods, gluten also may be found in a variety of other foods. Sometimes gluten is found in certain types of processed meats, vegetables with sauce, chips, soy sauce, candy, syrups and even some types of toothpastes, lip balms, vitamins and medications. Celiac patients must pay strict attention to ingredients.

If celiac patients consume gluten-containing foods, their immune system may react by damaging the lining of the small intestine. As a result, people with celiac disease may not absorb nutrients properly even if they eat a healthful diet. When celiac patients avoid gluten, their small intestine heals.

Although the symptoms vary, children might experience abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, vomiting and other digestive symptoms. Although adults with celiac disease also may have digestive symptoms, they might have iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, skin rash, tingling numbness in their hands and feet, depression, arthritis or several other symptoms. People with untreated celiac are more at risk for bone disease, anemia and/or certain types of cancer.

You cannot accurately diagnose yourself with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. A diagnosis usually involves blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine. If your favorite celebrities happen to be promoting a gluten-free diet, be sure to check if they have picked up a medical degree or other health-related degree. Most likely, they don’t have the credentials to make the recommendation.

Most people can consume gluten in wheat, barley and rye without any issues. In fact, grain-based foods provide energy, fiber (in the case of whole grains), vitamins and minerals. Before you decide to avoid gluten-containing foods, be sure you have a valid reason. For more information about celiac disease and its implications, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation at www.celiac.org.

Here’s a fudgy cake suitable for people with celiac disease or for people who simply like rich, chocolaty desserts. Chickpeas and other beans are fiber-rich and contain no gluten. For more information about food and nutrition, visit www.ag.ndsu.edu/food.


Chickpea Chocolate Fudge Cake

1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained

4 eggs

3/4 cup white sugar

1/2 tsp. baking powder

Optional toppings: powdered sugar, frosting or fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 9-inch round cake pan. Melt chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl. Stir occasionally until chocolate is smooth.

Combine chickpeas and eggs in food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add sugar and baking powder; blend. Pour in melted chocolate and then blend until smooth. Transfer batter to prepared cake pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool on wire rack.

Note: If you are preparing this recipe for someone with celiac disease, check to see that all of ingredients (chips, baking powder) are gluten-free.

Makes nine servings. Each serving (without frosting) has 320 calories, 13 grams (g) of fat, 47 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fiber and 190 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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