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Gluten-free diets are followed by those suffering from coeliac disease, a lifelong auto-immune condition that hinders the absorption of nutrients by the small intestine. Gluten is a protein that is found in a number of grains including wheat, barley and rye. Some people with coeliac disease are also sensitive to oats.
Coeliac sufferers, and anyone shopping or cooking for someone with the disease, need to be extremely cautious and aware of the foods they are purchasing so that they can be certain that they are safe to eat. Coeliac UK provides a directory of gluten-free Food and Drink, but food manufacturers can change the ingredients in their products, so it's essential to check the Coeliac UK directory updates page monthly.
Baked goods pose a particular problem: it's gluten that gives bread its elasticity and cakes their spring. Therefore, gluten-free breads will not display the same characteristic as 'normal' bread. Gluten-free flours are a little more difficult to work with than regular flours, but it's just a matter of getting used to cooking with them.
Icing sugar in the UK is gluten-free, though in other countries it could contain modified starch as a bulking agent - typically cornstarch is used, but theoretically wheat starch could be. Oats don't contain gluten, but are usually prepared in an environment where wheat may be present. Oats on sale in the US are starting to be declared ‘gluten free’.
Gluten-free flours: these include flours made from rice, soy, chestnut, buckwheat, corn, potato, and chickpea (gram flour). Without gluten, these flours can produce a crumblier product with a less cohesive texture, but recipes tailored to use them often account for this.
Xantham gum: a powder that greatly aids gluten-free baking. Xanthan gum, to some extent, replaces the elastic qualities that gluten-free flours lack. Adding a little to gluten-free flours makes the bread less crumbly and gluten-free pastry easier to roll and handle. It's available in specialist health food stores and in some supermarkets.
Gluten-free baking powder: if you’ve gone to the trouble of buying gluten-free flour to make a cake, then don’t forget to buy gluten-free baking powder - standard baking powder contains gluten. Gluten-free baking powder is now widely available in the baking sections of supermarkets (NB: bicarbonate of soda is naturally gluten-free).
Pasta and noodles: gluten-free pastas are becoming quite common now, and are marketed as such, however gluten-free noodles are not always obviously labelled. Rice noodles are gluten-free as are the varieties of soba noodles made entirely from buckwheat.
Grains: couscous, bulgur wheat and semolina are not gluten-free. Try using quinoa in the place of couscous or bulgur wheat for salads and side dishes. If semolina is called for, you can often substitute it with an equivalent grade (e.g. coarse or fine) polenta or ground rice.
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