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You may have seen the phrase “gluten-free” on products in your local supermarket, but do you know what it means? If not, prepare for a quick refresher course on nutrition and biology.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and malts. It’s that special something that gives the ingredients in foods like bread, crackers and cake their ability to stick together. It is commonly referred to as a “binder,” and it can be found in a wide variety of food items.
For most people, consuming gluten is no problem. However, for the estimated 10 percent of people in the United States who have a sensitivity to gluten, avoidance becomes a full-time task. This is especially true for people with celiac disease, a condition where a person is unable to break down and absorb the proteins in gluten. Depending on the severity of their condition, painful and inconvenient allergic reactions can occur when a person with celiac digests even a small amount of wheat.
Luckily for the sufferers of gluten-sensitivity, Sacramento has many options in both retail and dining settings. Gluten-Free Specialty on J Street is just as one would imagine with its name: Every item on their shelves has been verified gluten-free. They carry sandwich breads, candies, pastas, cupcakes and much more. Locally owned and operated by Melaine Weir, who has celiac herself, the shop has grown over the past few years from a small outfit in the back of the building to a large streetside operation that’s still expanding.
Larger retail chain stores have begun to see the benefits of providing a gluten-free option to their customers as well. Whole Foods Markets, Nugget Markets, Target and even Wal-Mart have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon. Some even provide gluten-free shopping lists or special labels to highlight “GF” items. When in doubt, smart shoppers should refer to the ingredient label and look for any allergy warnings.
If you are searching for freshly baked goods without gluten, the Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe carries a line of cupcakes that are made daily. The prices are reasonable and, just like everything else Sugar Plum produces, they are also made to satisfy practicing vegans. Experimenting chefs know that finding acceptable replacements for gluten’s elastic quality can lead to mixed results. However, this author found all the sampled items here to be excellent in both taste and texture.
Dining out can be another challenge for sensitive individuals, but more and more options are becoming available. Andy Nguyen’s on Broadway recently added a gluten-free plate to their menu. Paesanos in Midtown now offers a gluten-free pasta. Dad’s Kitchen on Freeport Boulevard can make almost any one of its sandwiches on gluten-free bread. If a pizza pie is on your mind, Steve’s Pizza can make a gluten-free one and even a dessert!
National restaurant chains in the Sacramento region provide even more options for gluten-free dining. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse has an extensive gluten-free menu that even has a beer option. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro’s gluten-free menu items include their delicious Singapore Street Noodles, Moo Goo Gai Pan and about two dozen other items. On request, the Old Spaghetti Factory will substitute their normal pasta with DeBoles gluten-free pasta. If you’re in a hurry and looking for some Mexican food, Chipotle is sensitive to people with a gluten-intolerance. They will even happily change gloves before they make your order to help prevent cross-contamination.
If you have a smart phone capable of downloading specialty applications, there are available programs that can track down even more gluten-free options. For the iPhone alone, there are over 50 apps in the iTunes store that claim to help find gluten-free options. The Whole Foods Market app is especially helpful while grocery shopping and even as inspiration for new recipes to make at home.
Just a few years ago, people with celiac and other forms of gluten-intolerance had a hard time finding restaurants and stores that catered to their needs. Now, with a little research on the Internet and word-of-mouth recommendations, one can try a new gluten-free business almost every week. With more options becoming available, combined with the ongoing awareness and education in the food-service industry, Sacramento residents seeking gluten-free alternatives can find plenty of local choices.