Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gluten-Free Glut

My daughter and I were recently having a discussion about how the Paleo diet seemed to be the new, trendy thing. She commented that although Paleo is quite popular, she didn't think it would ever become huge. The reason? You can't market it.

If you look at food trends and fads of the past, they were almost always because someone was selling something. One day a study shows that salt will kill you and the next day there are a gazillion "low sodium" products on the grocery store shelves. The next week a headline reads that Fats Make You Fat, and by the following week, you can barely squeeze your grocery cart through the maze of low-fat packaged foods. I read that when the Adkins boom went bust, there were warehouses full of Adkins bars and shakes that didn't sell.

It's hard to market a way of eating that focuses on healthy meats and lots of fresh produce. If the whole point of the diet is to eschew processed foods, who's going to market it? Aside from cookbooks, blenders, and dehydrators, there's not a lot for corporations to sell.

Another reason that Paleo won't become mainstream is the laziness factor. It is time-consuming to make all your own food from scratch. For ... Every ... Meal. No frozen waffles in the morning. No drive-through burgers for lunch or on the way home from work. No Costco lasagna to pull from the freezer because you don't have a clue what else to feed the family. Plus, a lot of things need planning ahead. Nuts take at least a day to soak and dehydrate. You might have a hankering for lacto-fermented sauerkraut or lemonade, but that's three days away! And my amazing lacto-fermented bean dip is almost a week in the making.

A current food trend that's very marketable is Gluten-Free. As a lot more people have become aware that they either have coeliac disease or that they just do a lot better without gluten, and as they talk about what a difference being gluten-free has made to their health, gluten-free products have proliferated like bunnies on a honeymoon. They're popping up everywhere!

The label Gluten-Free has become associated with "healthy living", so you see it on all kinds of products, even products that have never had gluten. Gluten-free soda, yogurt, and lollipops. Seriously. But does slapping a GF label on food really mean it's healthy?

As a baker, I've learned something in my experiments with gluten-free baking. If you're trying to recreate a product that normally contains gluten, you usually use a fair amount of starch, primarily tapioca starch, potato flour, or rice flour. In the body starches are quickly converted to sugar, and consistently spiking your blood sugar levels is hard on your body and can lead to insulin resistance. Ie, Not Healthy.

Besides not being pancreas friendly, a lot of gluten-free packaged foods  don't actually nourish you. Tapioca starch doesn't come loaded up with proteins, vitamins, minerals, and friendly fats like an egg or a handful of nuts does. Plus they come with preservatives and weird chemicals a normal person doesn't stock in their pantry.

So what's a health-loving consumer to do? Push back from the table and say, "No more gluten-free jello for me, Ma." Again, I repeat my mantra, READ LABELS. Check out whether it's a nutrient dense food that will give your body fuel to grow and repair itself, or if it's just a waste of calories that will unduly burden your pancreas, bloat your body, and make you feel wretched. And when in doubt, make it yourself. Your body will thank you. And once your kids go through the withdrawal, they'll thank you, too!

Real Food Gluten-Free Crackers (to put some crunch into a Paleo life)
 - adapted from The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook

3 cups almond meal
1-1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup sesame seeds (preferably soaked and dehydrated)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 egg whites, whipped till frothy

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F with racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven.  Cut 3 pieces of parchment paper to fit 2 large baking sheets.

2- In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, salt, and sesame seeds. In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil and egg whites. Stir the wet ingredients into the almond meal mixture until thoroughly combined.

3- Divide the dough into 2 pieces. Place 1 piece of dough between 2 sheets of the parchment paper and roll to 1/16-inch thickness. (Getting it really thin is the key to crispy crackers.) Transfer the dough (still between the papers) onto a baking sheet. Remove the top piece of parchment paper. Cut the dough into 2-inch squares with a knife or pizza cutter. Repeat with remaining dough.

4- Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly golden. Let the crackers cool on the baking sheets for 30 minutes, then serve. Store any extras in an airtight container.