Going gluten-free is harder than it looks. The pesky stuff is everywhere! Many people who are intolerant or have a wheat allergy can get away with not really worrying about trace amounts of contamination. But if you are going gluten-free because of an autoimmune problem like celiac disease, it's imperative that you get away from even the slightest cross-contamination. Some households do have mixed kitchens, but they maintain strict protocols to keep gluten-free space safe. This post is about how to have a totally gluten-free household.
This is a step-by-step guide for doing it yourself. It can be an overwhelming process, so give yourself a few days, make sure you have safe snacks on hand before you start, and get a friend or two to help. If you're in the Portland, Oregon area and want someone to help or just take care of the whole process for you, we'd love to liberate your kitchen! LINKS TO OUR SERVICES STRIPPED OUT
The first step in eliminating gluten is knowing how to spot it.
Gluten is a catch-all term for the protein in wheat, rye and barley. Oats also have a very similar protein as well, which some people react to in the same way, and most oats are cross-contaminated due to their growing conditions. So it follows that any product that has wheat, rye, barley, or oats in it is NOT safe!
It's not as simple as that, though... because these grains can be processed into other products that end up in the products you might want to eat. Sound convoluted? It is! A good rule of thumb is to avoid any ingredient that you don't know the exact source of.
In the USA, labeling laws require companies to disclose whether products are processed with the top 8 allergens - wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish & shellfish. So if your product was processed in a factory with wheat, you can know it's not safe! Unfortunately a product with no warning isn't necessarily safe. It could have been processed with rye, barley, or oats, or could have been cross-contaminated during manufacturing or shipping! I've seen products that are labeled "naturally gluten-free" but which also disclose they have been processed in a factory with wheat. These products are not safe!
Even products that are certified gluten-free are not necessarily safe enough for people with autoimmune reactions to gluten. The reason is that these products can contain up to 20 parts per million of gluten. While some super-sensitive people do feel the difference when they get glutened from these products, most people do not react outwardly to this level of contamination. Unfortunately, the damage is still being done internally!
Always read the labels on the products you decide to try, and if you have any question whatsoever about how it was processed, call the manufacturer and ask. Don't just ask "is this gluten-free?" Ask about whether wheat, barley, rye, or oats are processed or packaged in the same building, and ask about their policies to ensure no cross-contamination.
Gluten isn't just in food. It's also in playdough, some art supplies, some glues, the powder dusted on latex gloves, make-up, lotions, shampoos... if you are truly eliminating gluten from your life, you need to watch out for these unexpected sources of contamination as well!
A Fresh Start For Your Home
You can imagine that if even 20 parts per million is enough to cause a problem, that cross-contamination is a real problem in a kitchen that hasn't always been gluten-free. If you plan to go gluten-free, you'll need to get a fresh start! Here's how:
Remove All Products Containing or Contaminated With Gluten
The first step is to remove everything that contains gluten or might have come into contact with it. The rule of thumb is "when in doubt, throw it out... or donate it."
It can be really hard to do this. Most of us have issues around wasting food, and most of us have attachments to foods that we like or have cultural attachments too. It's likely you'll run across a few things you just don't want to give up. If that happens, put the item in the correct box and make a note of what the item is on a piece of paper taped to the box. You can revisit that later. For now, you are just sorting, and that needs to be the focus of the process. Here are the steps, which can be used for eliminating allergens as well:
- Set up four boxes, and label them:
- Dry goods - unopened
- Perishable - unopened
- Food - opened
- Household Items
- Dry goods - unopened
[*]Now, start at one end of the kitchen and systematically go through each cupboard and drawer that contains food. Read every label carefully, even if you are sure there is no gluten in there! Here are examples of the things you'll put in each box:
Dry goods - unopened
Put everything that has gluten in it and won't go bad unrefrigerated in this box. You can tell by reading the labels. If they have ingredients you do not know the origins of, google them to find out what they are and whether they could contain gluten. Some examples are packages of flour, packages of cereal, packaged snacks, and canned soups.
Perishable - unopened
Everything that has gluten but will go bad if unrefrigerated goes in this box. Some might surprise you - gluten is often added to things like cottage cheese! Again, read all the labels and call the manufacturer if necessary!
Food - opened - Anything that either contains gluten, or might have been dipped into with something that contained gluten is fair game. Even items that would otherwise be gluten-free may have been contaminated. Spices are usually gluten-free since they have one single ingredient. However, if they have been open when you are baking, they could have been dusted with flour. You may have alternative flours or bulk goods, but if you shared a scoop with flour, they could be contaminated. If you have open jam, butter, dips, spreads, they could have been contaminated by dipping the knife back in after spreading on toast, or by a chip. If you aren't 100% sure it's never come into contact with gluten, it's got to go!
[*]Take your list of foods you don't want to get rid of off the boxes and look at it again. If any of these items are things you just can not let go of right now, put a big red "G" on them then go ahead and put them in a keep-for-now box (in the fridge if necessary). Keep your list to look at later.
All the unopened food can be donated to your local food bank or similar charity. You may find that you need to throw out the opened items. It is a small price to pay for your health!
[*]Now it's time for the household items. Go through the kitchen systematically, putting everything that is contaminated with gluten into the Household Items box.
Here are some things to look out for:
- Old potholders and used sponges (It's ok to hold onto dishtowels for now unless they've been used to wipe up flour. Just throw them all in the wash for now. You can use them for the first pass cleaning you'll do later.)
- Scratched plastic containers
- Teflon items, especially if they are at all scratched
- Wood, plastic, or silicone utensils and cutting boards
- Containers or measuring cups that have been regularly used with gluten-containing items
- Items with tiny crevices or lots of holes, like wire mesh screens or colanders
- Serrated knives
- Kitchen appliances that have scratches in the parts that contact food, which have vents, or which have been used frequently with gluten-containing items. (Like mixers, breadmakers, toaster ovens)
- Baking sheets
- Drawer organizers if they have crevices or are made of something porous (we're still sad about our bamboo silverware sorter, but it had to go!)
The good news is, you get to keep your stainless steel, cast iron, and glass! We'll get to cleaning those in a minute.
If you find that you just can't give up some of these items yet, put them in a second box, labeled "Household Items - GLUTEN" and store them out of sight. The rest can be donated to your local charity or sold.
Cleaning The Kitchen
Now it's time to clean! Everything in your kitchen is going to get a thorough scrubbing... and more than once! The important thing to remember is that once a sponge has touched gluten, it now has gluten on it, which it can spread around. You will go through a lot of sponges and rags - throw them out or donate them to someone who is not gluten-free once they're dirty and get a new one. I don't usually advocate waste, but you don't want to take chances with your health. You are going to take two thorough passes through your entire kitchen, starting at the top, and working your way to the bottom. You can wear a mask and gloves so that you don't accidentally breathe in or touch and ingest gluten.
- Clean your sink, handles, and fixtures thoroughly.
- If your cabinets do not reach the ceiling, take everything off the top of them and put in the dishwasher or stack up somewhere out of the way for washing later.
- Wipe down the tops of the cabinets with soap and water, so that they look clean.
- Throw out the sponge(s) you used for that, and repeat, with a fresh sponge and soap and water.
- Wash everything that had been on top of the cabinets, then put it back away.
- Repeat steps 2-5 for each of your upper cabinets.
- Repeat steps 2-5 for your counters.
- Repeat steps 2-5 for your lower cabinets.
- Repeat steps 2-5 for your refrigerator - don't forget to clean each rack!
- Clean your oven and stove thoroughly.
- Repeat steps 2-5 for the cabinet, refrigerator, dishwasher, and oven doors, handles, and faces, and the sink.
- Scrub down your table, chairs, doors, and anything else in the kitchen that I haven't mentioned - always switching out sponges and taking a thorough second pass.
- Sweep & mop the floor.
Reseason your cast iron using the self-clean cycle on your oven (we had to use my mom's oven) and wash the pans you are keeping.
The Rest of the House
Unfortunately, the kitchen isn't the only place gluten lurks. Especially if you have kids or allow eating in other rooms of the house, they need to be dealt with, too. In each room of the house, use the same cleaning techniques to spot gluten and clean it up. Each house is different, but here are some pointers to get you started:
- Carpets and upholstered furniture need to be vacuumed and wiped down. (Dry cleaning does not remove gluten.)
- Doors and handles need to be cleaned with two passes, like in the kitchen.
- Read the labels on all personal care products, and get rid of anything that contains gluten. Call the manufacturers if necessary.
- Toys that have been played with by children after they ate or handled gluten need to be washed. LEGOs can even go through the dishwasher in mesh bags!
Supplements and Medications
Supplements and medications are not regulated in the same way as foods. In order to find out what the fillers in your supplements and medications are, you must call the manufacturer or ask your pharmacist. If you find that you are on a medication which contains gluten, do not throw it out right away or discontinue its use without the approval of your physician. It is very dangerous to abruptly stop some medications.
However, don't let anyone tell you that since it's "just a little bit" that it doesn't matter. Even small quantities of gluten over long periods of time can trigger autoimmune problems and prevent recovery. Some medications will need to be weened off of slowly, or replaced with another medication. Others will no longer be necessary once you have healed.
Keep it Safe!
Now that you have a gluten-free kitchen, keep it that way! Don't bring gluten into your house, and you won't have to worry. If someone does bring gluten to your house, have them use a paper towel under it, then fold it up carefully and throw it away after eating. They should also thoroughly wash their hands and the area they ate in afterwards with soap and water. Hand sanitizer does not clean up gluten!
Do the Emotional Work
It's normal to grieve when you are making any kind of a change. Adjusting to a new diet is especially difficult, because we are so connected to our food. If you found that feelings came up or there were foods or kitchen items you really didn't want to give up, dealing with those feelings is going to be an important part of making your new diet sustainable. We'll have a post about that soon.