What does it mean to be gluten-free in Toronto?
Gluten-free cupcakes all around: May is Celiac Awareness Month. We look into what it's like to live with the disease in Toronto...
These days, gluten-free diets aren't taken as seriously as they should be. A lot of it has to do with the undeniable shift towards gluten-free living as trendy (a recent study indicates that 29% of North Americans are trying to cut gluten out of their diets). What's easy to forget is that gluten-free living originates from an autoimmune disorder, and that for many, cutting out gluten is not a choice but a necessity. With the month of May devoted to celiac awareness, we wanted to know what resources are available for gluten-free Torontonians.
But first: what exactly is gluten? It's easy to think of carbs, but gluten is actually a protein found in wheat and its derivatives, including barley, malt, rye, spelt and farro, to name a few. It's also used to help wheat-based foods like bread and pastries maintain their shape, texture and consistency. In celiac sufferers, the surface of the small intestine is damaged by gluten, resulting in the inability to digest foods and absorb proper nutrients. An estimated one in 133 Canadians are affected by the disease, yet there's still a lot of confusion around it.
The idea that the gluten-free movement and lifestyle is solely a choice is frustrating.
Rachael Hunt, the founder of a gluten-free living blog called GlutenFreedom, shares her frustration: 'The idea that the gluten-free movement and lifestyle is solely a choice is frustrating," she says. "Especially for those of us with celiac disease, or an intolerance or allergy, who must adjust and eliminate foods from our diets in order to feel better." While there have been considerable changes to the restaurant industry and to fast-casual food options throughout the city, there are still a lot of misconceptions in the industry about what is and isn’t gluten-free.
RonniLyn Pustil, founder of Gluten Free Garage (a pop-up marketplace at Wychwood Barns) has been navigating the Toronto gluten-free food scene for the past seven years, since her daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease. "There are so many more choices when it comes to gluten-free food products and places to eat," she says. "Now we just need to create more awareness about issues like cross-contamination." When RonniLyn visits a restaurant with her daughter, she notices that servers rarely ask about allergy requests. "We really appreciate when our server has asked us if we’ve made a specific request because of celiac or an allergy (vs a lifestyle choice)," she explains. "That shows us that they know there’s a difference, and that the food may have to be prepared differently and with more attention." In some cases, this could mean a dedicated prep area, separate utensils and cookware and a change in apron, as well as hygiene protocols.
If you’re claiming you can’t eat gluten but are ok with a non-dedicated fryer you’re making it harmful for those with a real problem.
Although the gluten-free myths have been largely debunked, many people still cite weight loss benefits when ordering gluten-free options, which allows restaurants to be lax on their procedures. Essentially, as Rachael puts it, if you’re claiming you can’t eat gluten but are okay with a non-dedicated fryer, you’re "making it harmful for those with a real problem."
The growth of the gluten-free community in Toronto inevitably presents challenges, but it also brings a sense of comfort for those going through the daily struggles. This has resulted in more celiac-friendly events, support groups and meet-ups, and has even inspired new ventures like RonniLyn Pustil's Gluten Free Garage. She wanted to create a day for those suffering from celiac disease to sample, shop and discover products from local vendors, and to enjoy everything under one roof. "There are just so many delicious options in terms of products and recipes," she says.
National supermarkets are also paying attention to gluten-free living. Chef Andrea Buckett, food expert for President’s Choice, believes that while living gluten-free can often be an uphill battle, it's important to pay attention to your body, regardless of your level of sensitivity. "I think it’s more of a drag to continue eating foods that don’t make you feel well," she explains. "If removing gluten from your diet means you feel better or have more energy, I say go for it.” Brands like President’s Choice are developing high-quality gluten-free products to make it easier for home chefs to cook what they love without compromising on flavour. "When you have great products like those at home, cooking gluten-free is a breeze," she says.
If removing gluten from your diet means you feel better or have more energy...go for it
On top of more products becoming readily available, local recipe blogs are gaining popularity. Here in Toronto these include Vegan Girlfriend, a site co-founded by Megan Stulberg, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. She has made it her mission to create and share delicious recipes that appeal to everyone (see her Mushroom Gravy Poutine or Salted Chocolate Cookies with Lemon Frosting for inspiration). Blogs allow the gluten-free community to connect online in a meaningful way. Rachael Hunt agrees: "It’s comforting to have a group of people who can relate to the struggles and who can share in the excitement of my gluten-free foodie triumphs.”
If you're curious to try gluten-free food for yourself, home is a great place to start. (Remember those back-of-house protocols when a restaurant gets a gluten-free ticket.) And if you do find yourself feeling better for it, check in with your doctor. A simple blood test can tell you if you have an intolerance—or if that's just a really excellent gluten-free cupcake.