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How To Eat Gluten-Free Healthily

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As Jimmy Kimmel proved last week, eating gluten-free may be the current rage in the dieting world, but not everyone knows what it means. And if you don't know how it works, you certainly won't know how to shop for it -- there's way more to it than just looking for boxes that say "gluten-free" and shoving them in your cart.

See, there are a lot of gluten-free productss out there that are less healthy for you than the gluten-filled originals. So, to help us navigate the world of gluten-free, I called up author and expert Kristine Kidd.

Kristine was the food editor for Bon Appétit magazine for over twenty years, and has written numerous cookbooks including "Weeknight Gluten Free." Later this year, she'll publish her second foray into the gluten-free world with a book focusing on how to bake without gluten. When I called, she was in the middle of baking a dessert that was, of course, gluten-free.

What are you making?

Kristine Kidd: I'm making pavlovas. They're a naturally gluten-free dessert, a white meringue that's crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Then you fill it with fresh fruit. I'll add whipped cream and greek yogurt, and lots of fresh berries, and cook it with a little bit of maple syrup.

Why did you get into cooking gluten-free?

Kristine: I had celiac as a baby, and at the time doctors thought if you went gluten-free for three years you were cured. So, that's what my mother did and it went into latency. But then four years ago, it resurfaced.

Has the gluten-free movement been a good thing for gluten-free eaters?

Kristine: The movement has certainly helped, because even though there are people going gluten-free for all kinds of reasons -- including being trendy or, very questionably, for weight loss -- there are that many more products available. For the person who has to be gluten-free, that has certainly helped.

What's the wrong way to go gluten-free?

Kristine: I don't think it's a question of not doing it correctly, I think it's a question of not doing it healthily. Because in an attempt to replace gluten, a lot of products are made with what I call "the other white starches." Corn starch, white rice starch, tapioca starch, potato starch, all of which have next to no nutritional value. Whereas wheat flour actually does. So they're just more junk food.

Why do recipes and gluten-free products use "the other white starches"?

Kristine: They're trying to replicate what we've become used to. But in doing that, they're making a product that is often less helpful, because most of our wheat is enhanced with vitamin and minerals.

What's the biggest challenge in trying to bake gluten-free?

Kristine: If you've eaten the gluten-free baked products that are available, sometimes in the front of the mouth there's a very pleasant taste, and then you swallow and it burns. It's kind of dry on the back of your throat. So, I had to figure out how to bake good things without having that unpleasant reaction, using mostly whole grains and just enough of the white starches to tenderize the product and help it stick together.

See, this is how gluten works. It's a protein, and when it's mixed with water it forms long rubber-band like structures within the food. When you put something in the oven, the air bubbles expand and the gluten stretches, but it doesn't break. Bread is the most obvious example. You start with a smaller loaf, but then you put it in the oven and it expands. That's the air getting hot and expanding, and the gluten stretches when it expands instead of breaking. That's how you get a nice loaf of bread. The same holds for cakes, and cookies, and cupcakes, and muffins, all your baked goods. The trick in gluten-free baking is how do you get something that's got a wonderful texture and flavor without wheat.

What's the secret?

Kristine: You need a little bit of the white starches, and then something called xanthan gum, which sounds frightening, but it actually is plant-based and naturally-occurring. It's from fermenting sugar, a byproduct of that fermentation. And that helps the baked goods stick together, so you just don't get a totally crumbly thing.

What should consumers who are going gluten-free be looking for, then?

Kristine: I like to look for the healthy whole grains that don't have gluten in it. That would be sorghum, millet, buckwheat, corn, oats, quinoa, and brown rice. And there's the nut meals which are used like flour in gluten-free baking, and flax seed. It's a lot like we should be doing if we're gluten-free or not. You want to eat healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, but you need some starches. So, there are good ways to replace the starches. Polenta, tortilla, quinoa, brown rice, potatoes. You can make great potato pancakes without any flour. You can make mashed potatoes, and bake yams into crisp wedges. And legumes, I use legumes a lot. They give you that carbohydrate satisfaction you might otherwise be getting from bread.

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