A year ago, I went gluten free. Now before you raise your eyes to heaven and turn the page, let me stress that I’m not here to co-opt you into the cult. But what I can do is give you a little information and, should you choose to go sans gluten, help you find the bloody stuff! Because, on an island which lives for baked goods (who doesn’t love a tiropitta?), going gluten free is far from easy.
WHO NEEDS TO GO GLUTEN FREE?
Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat species; in rye, barley, oats and their derivatives (breads, malts etc). It’s pretty ubiquitous, but it’s not dangerous. Well, to most people anyway… If you’re unlucky enough to suffer from celiac disease, then even a crouton can put your life at risk: just 50 milligrams of the protein can trigger an immune response which interferes with the absorption of nutrients, permanently damages the lining of the small intestine, and potentially causes anything from osteoporosis to infertility, serious nerve damage, and seizures.
There’s also a group people who are classed as gluten sensitive. And while they’re not going to end up with quite the same intestinal damage as the celiac sufferers, any consumption can generate similar symptoms. And that, thanks to frequent gastro-intestinal surgery and a handful of auto-immune conditions, is where I fall. So when I tell you I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of going gluten-free: a) believe me, and b) don’t ask for too many details, because it sure ain’t pretty!
AND WHO DOESN’T
Okay, so most don’t actually need to worry, or pay any attention to the media hype suggesting your health will dramatically improve should you drop the gluten (you’ll see everything from weight loss to an energy increase, decreased incidence of colds and flus, and even a reduction in the severity of autism attributed to a gluten-free diet!). And though I’m not a medic (and fully endorse the idea of checking with your GP before giving gluten-free a whirl) even doctors are wary about their claims: Dr Leffler, Director of Clinical Research at Boston’s Celiac Centre and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School suggests that “those who are sensitive to gluten may feel better [on a gluten-free diet], but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive.”
Very true. I reckon my food bill has tripled since going gluten free. And, even worse, it’s taken me months of research and legwork to hunt out the right products. Which is why I’m about to share my findings – because if you do decide to go gluten-free, you can look forward to spending half your life traipsing round supermarkets…
WHERE TO FIND GLUTEN-FREE PRODUCTS
Of course anyone living in, say, California has got no issues when it comes to finding gluten-free foods – even pizza toes the health line: Pizza Hut and Domino’s (to name just two) serve up a host of wheat-free choices. And Britain is getting in on the health craze, with most supermarkets offering up a line of gluten-free produce. But those of us in Cyprus have a harder time of it…
AlphaMega is probably your best bet. Thanks to the Tesco’s ‘Free From’ range, there’s a whole aisle of gluten-free crackers, breads, flours, pasta, and biscuits. They also sell Jamie’s gluten-free pasta sauce and, in the frozen section, you’ll find a fridge filled with gluten-free buns, lasagne, nuggets, garlic bread, fish fingers, croissants, and, if you’re lucky, chocolate eclairs.
Lidl don’t quite rival this range, but they’re doing their best: there’s usually a gluten-free packet of pasta to be had. Papantoniou carry the Pascual gluten-free range (including, according to the knowledgeable mums at the ‘Gluten Free Paphos’ Facebook page, chocolate pud – yum!) and that of Seitz in addition to Sainsbury’s gluten-free pastas, to be followed by their gluten-free oats in May and more ‘Free From’ products expected to follow.
Marks & Sparks have a dedicated gluten-free shelf (though if you’re after the muffins and scones, you’ll need to find out when the delivery lands – these sell out like, well, hot cakes!). And even the discount Smart stores are getting in on the act: a reliable source tells me they offer gluten-free crisps and popcorn, though I’ve yet to give this a try.
If you can’t face the supermarket run but you’re desperate for a quick slice of toast, pop down to Zorbas. Most of their bakeries do gluten-free bread, though you’ll have to ask for it because it’s generally hidden away in a mysterious deep freeze. It’s not quite the same standard as Schär’s Pane Casereccio (again, it’s AlphaMega who carry this well-known gluten-free brand), but at less than four euros a loaf it’s pretty much the cheapest option.
It goes without saying that the majority of health food stores have a variety of (costly) gluten-free produce. But quite a few of the boutique bakeries have also been getting in on the act. In Limassol, there’s Areteos Bakery, who bill themselves as ‘the first gluten-free bakery in Cyprus’. Specialising only in gluten-free products (loaves of bread, cakes etc) they make almost all their produce themselves, but you can’t drop in and pick up a muffin: everything must be ordered in advance.
In the capital, there’s Seed of Happiness: a bakery dedicated almost solely to gluten-free, refined sugar-free, nut-free, dairy-free and vegan produce. Entirely suitable for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the bakery is run by brother and sister duo Melina and Christos Nicolaidou, who welcome drop-ins and are happy to deliver all over the island.
I’m sure there are a host more options out there (answers on a postcard please! I’m always on the look-out), and things have definitely improved over time. But I think the general message here is this: statistically speaking, you probably don’t need to worry about gluten. And if you’re one of the few who do, welcome to the club – going gluten-free is not fun, but we’re in this together!