Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Making Gluten-Free Eating Easier

My recent foray into eliminating sugar and yeast from my diet have me thinking a lot about what I choose to put into my mouth. As an almost six-year veteran of living gluten-free, I’m used to doing that, of course, and I’ve written before about how I view my celiac diagnosis as full of opportunities, not restrictions.

While there are always occasional missteps or awkward experiences, after all this time I don’t stress too much about what is safe and what isn’t. I have my regular favorites recipes and my grocery store routine down pat. I’m comfortable asking questions in restaurants, and know to look for the “secret” sources of gluten that can make me sick. At this point, I think one of the more challenging parts of celiac disease is making other people comfortable and familiar with what I can and can’t eat. I don’t want relatives needlessly worried about giving me roast potatoes or rice (for some reason, the fact that they are starches used to make them think they weren’t safe), and I don’t want to cause extra work or concern for them.

I’m fortunate to be able to say that my friends and family are wonderful—they want to include me, and often branch out into things they might not have cooked before because I’m around, like risotto or polenta. They do their best with what I know is a steep learning curve.

That learning curve—the same one newly diagnosed celiacs also face—just got a little easier. I recently had the change to speak with the lovely people at Zeer, which is a “food information resource that makes it easy to find safe food. It helps people save time, stay safe, learn particular diets and live better lives.”

In response to the active, passionate gluten-free community on their review site, Zeer created Zeer Select, a subscription services for gluten-free shoppers that launched just a few weeks ago. The services includes a database of 30,000 food grocery products (a number that will keep growing), each labeled with a gluten-free safety status. (Not to worry—each product is evaluated by a team of physician and dietician experts to verify the safety and accuracy of the labels.)

Products are coded as either being gluten-free (safe), appearing to be gluten-free, or containing gluten. The ingredients for each product are included, so if a product is not specifically labeled gluten-free by the manufacturer but none of the ingredients are known to have gluten, the consumer can read them and make the decision to purchase it or not. Of course, for products that are not safe, the actual source of the gluten is noted. Users can search by food type, brand, or UPC code, and features like a list of suggested alternatives for “unsafe” foods are really helpful.

First of all, I always like to hear when a company pays attention to its customers and responds to their needs. Zeer did not start out customizing in gluten-free services but saw how engaged its gluten-free members were and things emerged organically from there. Secondly, Zeer Select fills a void in the online gluten-free world. Often, when you Google gluten-free foods, lots of recipes, blogs, and commentary pops up—which is great, but if you’re looking for grocery items, it is much more difficult to isolate the answers to your questions.

I spent some time on Zeer Select, searching for specific brands and specific items, like salad dressings, and found it really easy to navigate. If you’re interested, click on over and you can take a tour, too. The service is $14.95 a month, and they plan to build out the intelligence to include other specialized plans, like dairy-free, casein-free, and vegan diets.

If you’re newly diagnosed and not sure what you can and can’t put into your grocery cart, you will learn a lot from this service. But as I think about the ups and downs of the past six years, I realize it’s not just the newbies who benefit—the people around us who want to learn and cook for us and with us do, too.

(Food Allergy Buzz wrote about the launch, too—check it out to hear what others are saying.)

While we’re talking about celiac disease, Scientific American just published an in-depth article about celiac disease and autoimmunity—definitely worth the read!

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