Celiac Disease: The Gluten-Free Prepping Challenge, by Geoff in Kentucky

In mid-2010 I began to suffer from some relatively severe digestive problems. After several months of discomfort, and many rounds of expensive medical tests, I finally received a confirmed diagnosis. I had Celiac Disease.

Celiac Disease is a digestive disorder that is greatly misunderstood. It is not a food allergy. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system produces antibodies to a specific protein, gluten, that is found in the ordinary grains of wheat, rye, and barley. This protein adheres to the microscopic villi (fingerlike projections) in the small intestine. As the body’s immune system attacks the protein the intestinal wall is also attacked. This results in severe tissue damage, vitamin and iron deficiencies, and several forms of severe gastric distress.

Celiac Disease primarily affects people of northern European ancestry. It can present at any age. Young children with the disease often present with malnutrition and wasting. Later onset of the disease (as in my case) does not follow any particular pattern. Individuals may be under or overweight and demonstrate a vast array of possible symptoms. One receives a confirmed diagnosis only through a positive blood test (anti-TTG antibody) and a positive intestinal biopsy. Left untreated, this disease can lead to certain cancers and even complete destruction of the small intestine.

There is no drug to treat this disease, but the damage and symptoms are reversible. The simple treatment for the disease is to avoid all foods containing gluten. This eliminates every product containing any form of wheat, rye, or barley from the diet. Obviously, the gluten-free diet requires a radical change from the normal North American diet. It eliminates all ordinary bread and bakery products, as well as many other products that contain “hidden” sources of gluten. It also eliminates any foods that have come into contact with gluten products. Since only a microscopic amount of gluten can trigger an immune reaction, contamination can be a significant problem. [JWR Adds: Be careful! Even the small amount of gluten left over in a grain grinder when you switch to grinding a gluten-free grain can trigger a celiac response.]

If you suspect that you or one of your family members may suffer from Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity or enteropathy, I highly recommend that you seek a good gastroenterologist and eliminate or confirm a diagnosis. Statistics vary from one study to another, and there is much debate in scientific circles, but many estimate that at least two million people in the United States suffer from some form of gluten intolerance. Some even suggest that as much as 15-20% of the population lack [full] tolerance for gluten.

I have been prepping and storing food for approximately three years. My initial reaction to the diagnosis was, “Great! So much for all of those wheat berries and pasta that I have in storage!” But after the initial shock I realized that the gluten free lifestyle and my intestinal health would not only affect my regular, daily diet. It would also have a dramatic impact upon my preps and survival food supply. Indeed, my wife and I had to make several careful, specific changes to our food storage approach.

Reflecting upon our changes over the past year, I recommend these steps for anyone who might choose to live a gluten free lifestyle.

1. Decide whether your home and preps will be partially or completely gluten free.

Some people with Celiac Disease convert their kitchens to completely gluten free facilities, and, thereby, include their families in the gluten free lifestyle.

I did not think that such an approach would be fair to my family, so ours is a partially/modified gluten free home. My wife and daughters (who have all been tested and are negative for the disease) continue to enjoy a relatively normal diet. I am the lone gluten free family member. Personally, I have no problem with that. It does, however, pose some difficulties. For instance, I must have my own tub of butter in the refrigerator (I cannot risk bread crumb contamination.) I also have my own toaster for gluten-free bread. On pasta nights we have gluten free for me and regular for everyone else. My family understands that utensils must be kept separate at meal times to avoid contaminating my food.

My wife has taken steps to make our daily meals (with the exception of breads/sandwiches) gluten free. For instance, she substitutes gluten free bread in various recipes that require bread crumbs. She makes batters and gravies with corn starch instead of flour. She avoids all “cream of” soups (all contain wheat flour) in any recipes. My daughters now spend extra time online locating adventurous gluten free recipes for the family. They’ve been terrific supporters throughout my dietary adjustments.

Gluten-free cooking is a “pain” sometimes, but it works for us.

My wife and I have discussed how we will approach our diet in the event that we come to depend upon our food preps. We agree that we will continue our modified/partial gluten free household. Difficult times are not times for fundamental cooking and diet changes. Indeed, we believe this fits well within the wisdom of “prep what you eat, eat what you prep.”

However, every household with a Celiac must make this fundamental decision … completely gluten free, or just partially gluten free?

2. Pay careful attention to all labels and ingredients.

Gluten is everywhere. You will be shocked to discover how many items contain gluten additives or contamination. Many times the culprit is wheat or wheat flour, but more and more I am finding that barley malt is a significant gluten additive.

Upon receiving my diagnosis, my first step was to go through all of my food stores and mark any items that contained gluten. These will still be useful food supplies for my family members, but strictly “hands-off” for me.

Again, you will be shocked at what you discover. Obviously, your wheat stores and pasta are gluten sources. Virtually all soups or dry soup mixes contain gluten additives, particularly the common “cream of” soups, which are typically thickened with wheat flour. Gluten is found in many, if not most, dry cereals. It is in some baked bean products. Most soy sauce is made from wheat, and is a major contaminant in many food items (i.e. sauces). Candy products are often contaminated. Gluten is even in some brands of chicken bullion!

The only way that you can avoid it is by reading and re-reading all labels. Obviously, careful examination of labels should become a focus of all of your future preps purchases. If you are in doubt about any product, check the company’s web site or contact the manufacturer. Most are happy to answer your questions about ingredients.

If you choose, as we did, to have a partially gluten free home, I recommend that you store the common gluten staples for your family (wheat, flour, pasta, etc…), but attempt to insure that all other side dishes and mixes are gluten free. This will cut down dramatically on cross-contamination and complications in preparation during difficult times.

3. Store copious amounts of gluten free staples.

Thank goodness that rice is still on the menu! Store it in great quantities. I have shifted my storage focus away from wheat and placed more emphasis upon rice, popcorn, oats, and gluten free pasta (made from corn).

Rice is already a key staple in our normal diet, and will continue to be so if and when we rely upon our food stores for survival. Popcorn is wonderful for grinding and making deep south, country corn bread. (More about that in a moment).

There has been much debate about oats in the literature and among “experts” on Celiac disease. Some claim that oats are usually contaminated with gluten at processing plants, and they recommend that Celiacs avoid it. Personally, I have never had a negative reaction to any oat products … even the cheap store brands. I usually eat oatmeal every other day or so. They are also excellent fillers and a great replacement for bread crumbs in meat recipes that call for crumbs (i.e. meat balls or meat loaf).

I purchase my gluten free pasta at a nearby mega-store. Thus far, I have only found it at one location. I typically clean out their shelves each time I visit the store (they tend to carry a limited amount). I simply store the pasta in five-gallon buckets with Gamma-Seal lids, and help myself whenever I need some. Like all gluten-free products, the cost is more than double typical wheat pasta. However, the taste and texture are great, and it is well worth the investment. Indeed, this is one area of your preps that you could, potentially, convert to fully gluten free. Everyone in your family will be satisfied with a gluten free pasta dish.

4. Grow your own gluten free food and preserve it.

There is no better way to insure the safety of your food supply than to grow your own products and preserve them. My family now has a small orchard right in our yard. We grow and can all of our own fruit products, including cherries, apples, pears, and blackberries. Our latest additions to the orchard are peach trees, plum trees, and blueberry bushes. We are still waiting for them to begin producing. In addition, we have a garden that gets a little bigger each year.

We can copious amounts of fresh fruits and jams/jellies/preserves every year. We also can our own fresh, organic juices. This year alone we preserved about fifty quarts of pear and apple cider (from one pear tree and one apple tree!). We also preserve many types of relishes, salsas, and ketchups. These home-canned goods are awesome food storage items, and make wonderful gifts for family members and friends.

5. Purchase a good grain grinder, and use it!

This past year I found a reconditioned and fully restored table mount grain grinder from the mid-1800’s on CraigsList and made a great deal. I’ve been using it faithfully ever since.

Since ordinary bread is officially off of my menu, I am forced to seek alternatives. One of my primary breads is good, old-fashioned southern corn bread. However, once again, you must be very careful about how you make corn bread. All corn meal mixes contain flour (that’s the “mix” part). You must have pure, gluten free corn meal. I have had much difficulty locating pure corn meal that I can trust. So now I just grind my own.

I have found that popping corn makes the sweetest, tastiest corn bread. I simply grind it and sift out the hulls. If I want a finer blend, I run the coarse ground through a smaller grinder. The finished product is perfect corn meal. I have discovered that plain yellow dent corn works just as well. I have a close friend who is an organic farmer. He has a corn crib full of yellow dent and gives me all I want. It’s not as tasty as the popcorn, but it works just as well.

The grinder is also useful in making home-mixed hot cereals. My organic farmer friend grows sorghum cane and cooks sorghum molasses every year. He gives me all of the sorghum seed that I want. Sorghum seed makes a fine flour replacement. It also makes a tasty whole grain addition to my home ground breakfast cereal mix. I make a mixture of one part ground sorghum, one part ground corn (or grits) and two parts ground rice to make an awesome gluten free breakfast mix. I just cook it up on the stovetop and mix whatever I want with it: brown sugar, maple syrup, fresh fruit, nuts, raisins, etc… It’s yummy!

If you do have wheat in storage and plan to use it for your other family members, you need to make sure you have a second grinder to use exclusively for wheat. You must not use your gluten free grinder to process wheat. I picked up an extra one while I was traveling in South America last year for a mere twenty dollars. It’s a good, heavy duty, daily use grinder. I just have it boxed up and stored for future wheat flour grinding.

Wrapping Up

If you’re like me, you will eventually grow tired of people asking you, “Can you eat this?” … or … “Can you eat that?” Especially when the item in question is obviously a non-gluten product. Most people have some difficulty understanding the etymology of the disease and the common sources of gluten. But with a little patience and education, the gluten free lifestyle eventually becomes “normal,” both for you and the loved ones who share your home.

Fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables are always gluten free and definitely on the menu! Also, fresh, frozen, and canned meats are still in play. The area where you must be careful is grain-based carbohydrates, baked goods, and food additives.

Obviously, I have only brushed the surface of what is involved in the gluten free lifestyle and gluten free prepping. It is a significant challenge. However, with a little planning and careful attention, anyone with gluten sensitivity can still prepare and store critical food supplies for an uncertain future.