By Kathryn Matthews
I have no gluten allergies. But I recently attended a gluten-free Chinese luncheon to meet Bob Levy of Bob & Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining & Travel Club at Golden Unicorn restaurant in Chinatown.
I was curious. The term “gluten-free” is getting a lot of buzz these days. What does it mean? And why eat a gluten-free diet?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Traditionally, oats were included in this group. But support organizations for the gluten-intolerant now cautiously recommend that oats labeled “pure, gluten-free and uncontaminated (by wheat, barley or rye)” may be consumed in limited quantities—subject to physician approval.
If you have celiac disease, you are, by definition, gluten-intolerant.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, when a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, their immune system responds inappropriately—by attacking the small intestine—which prevents absorption of important nutrients, and frequently causes other symptoms that can range from mild to severe: bloating, gas, diarrhea, joint pain, anemia, irritable bowel syndrome, to name a few. UCCDC statistics report that celiac disease affects at least 3 million Americans. And, in average healthy people, 1 in 133 has CD.
It can be confusing. Because…you can also be gluten-intolerant, and not have celiac disease. Plus, the term “gluten-sensitive” is often used interchangeably with “gluten-intolerant”.
In all cases: whether you have celiac disease, or you are gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive, the negative symptoms you may experience after ingesting gluten will usually lessen—or disappear—when you avoid gluten altogether.
A gluten-free diet is challenging. Obviously, wheat and wheat byproducts contain gluten. But gluten, especially hidden sources of it, is present in many commercially processed and prepared foods: cereals, soups, barbecue sauces, soy sauce, chutneys, malt (barley) flavoring, even health foods, like seitan (which is gluten!), toothpaste and more.
Levy, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1995, understands that, for those who are gluten-intolerant, dining out can feel like navigating a minefield. And traveling? Forget it. Many people with celiac disease forego travel, or travel only if they can stay at a place where they can prepare their own food.
It’s the reason why, in 1999, Levy and his wife Ruth decided to take the headache out of gluten-free traveling: they formed their own gluten-free dining and travel club. Their gluten-free trips range from mini two- or three-day getaways (eg, New Orleans) and resort getaways (eg, Club Med Mexico and the Caribbean), to exotic destinations (eg, Machu Picchu) and river cruises (eg, the Seine and the Nile). The Levys also conduct half-day workshops on gluten-free eating and traveling in conjunction with local Celiac support groups in the U.S. and Canada.
This October, Bob & Ruth’s, along with Lotus Tours, offer a two-week, gluten-free tour to China and Hong Kong, featuring a Victoria Cruise on China’s Yangtze River and luxury hotel stays, including the Fairmont Hotel, which recently introduced “Lifestyle Cuisine Plus” menu plans that include gluten-free friendly options.
Which brings me back to our lunch: can Chinese food really be “gluten-free”?
With careful consideration and detailed discussions with the chef (or manager): yes.
My taste of a gluten-free Chinese meal began with dim sum (steamed shrimp dumplings; vegetable dumplings; and sui mai); crystal shrimp; and roasted sweet potato. Next: Cantonese-style walnut shrimp with broccoli; sautéed beef with broad rice noodles; a crispy-skinned baked chicken; sautéed bok choy; fried rice; and orange slices for dessert.
FYI: “gluten-free” does not mean monosodium glutamate (MSG)-free, as I had assumed.
There’s a steep learning curve in learning how to live gluten-free. Reading labels and asking questions (many and often) is a way of life. And fellow diners with celiac disease emphasized to me that “gluten-free” is a non-negotiable lifestyle—not a trendy “diet”!
If I were gluten-intolerant, I might happily let someone else plan my travel itinerary.