Twenty-four years ago this week, I quit smoking. August 31, 1988 was the start of a new clean-lungs era for me. When I recalled that milestone earlier this week, it was hard not to think about the newest thing I quit: gluten. In making a mental comparison between then and now, I realized that quitting smoking was far easier than quitting gluten.
First off, I admit that I am addicted to gluten. I’d always known I liked things with gluten in them, but only in giving them up did I realize that I am addicted to them: to cakes, to cookies, to crackers. The biggest thing, though, is pasta. To some it may sound silly, but pasta was like a friend. When I was feeling low, a hearty bowl of pasta always made me feel better. Whether it was Kraft Dinner or beef Stroganoff over linguine or my mother’s homemade lasagne, I could always count on noodles to make me smile. Now, that’s all over.
I can hear some people saying, “There are plenty of gluten-free noodles on the market these days.” And they’re right… at least in theory. In truth, those noodles—whether they be made from rice, potato, quinoa or beans—are as much like wheat pasta as water is like wine. Gluten-free noodles have neither the right texture nor the right taste to satisfy my urges, and GF noodles certainly don’t do anything to alter my mood the way normal pasta did (what the exact mechanism of that process is, I don’t know, but I can feel the difference). Telling people who are avoiding gluten to eat gluten-free noodles is like telling people who are trying to quit smoking to smoke a stick of licorice. It just doesn’t cut it. So, yes, for me, quitting gluten is like quitting smoking in that they are both ending an addiction. But that is where the similarities end; it’s the differences that make quitting gluten harder than quitting nicotine.
First, when you quit cigarettes, you are only giving up one thing. It’s a big thing, but it’s still only that one thing. When you can’t have it, you can still have any other thing that you enjoy. When you quit gluten, you are giving up many of your favorites. I had to give up bread, waffles, cookies, crackers, cakes, cupcakes. And, as if those weren’t enough, I also had to give up other less obvious sources of gluten in sauces, salad dressings, flavoured coffees and teas, baked beans, certain potato chips…. and I could go on. Giving up gluten wipes out literally dozens of items you like to eat.
Second, when you are a smoker, your nicotine comes in only one place. When you give it up, you don’t have to worry about ways in which it might be hidden in other things you use. If you stay away from cigarettes, you stay away from nicotine, and you can freely use any other products you want without reading labels. Gluten, on the other hand, hides in so many food products that you can accidentally dose yourself without even knowing it. Every time you want to buy something new, or eat an old favourite for the first time since switching to gluten-free, you have to read the label. Even then, knowing whether you are getting gluten is not a simple task. Because while “wheat” or “rye” or “barley” are clearly off the list of safe products, you have to check the label for far more than these things. You have to rule out anything with “natural flavour” because the “natural” might refer to one of the dangerous grains. You have to rule out anything with “seasonings” because they may be mixed with flour to make them stick to your chips or whatever. You have to rule out anything with “hydrolyzed plant protein” because you don’t know what the “plant” was. And the list goes on. Beyond that, there are even non-food products that contain gluten to watch for such as lip balms, lipsticks and lotions.
Beyond that, if you are unsure about a product, perhaps one of those with “natural flavour,” you then need to contact the company to see whether it’s gluten-free or not. Which is not an easy task either. Many companies do not produce a list of which of their products have gluten and which do not. Those companies without a list (the majority I have found so far) require that you send an email or call their toll-free number to get an answer. That often means a long wait for an email reply or a long wait on hold. To top that off like a meatball on a plate of spaghetti (sorry, I was thinking about noodles), you will often get a useless answer anyway. Something like, “While our product is not produced with gluten-containing ingredients, we cannot guarantee it has not come into contact with gluten during the manufacturing process,” or “This product was produced in a factory that also produces products that may contain gluten, so we do not guarantee that it is gluten-free.” Utterly unhelpful.
Third, if I am trying to go smoke-free, no other smoker’s nicotine is going to contaminate my environment and get into my system through carelessness. Gluten, on the other hand, can transfer from one place to another very easily and can therefore contaminate my food even in trace amounts, often undetected by me until much later when symptoms show. For example, I have to have my own toaster so that my toast is not contaminated by gluten from Roland’s toast, but if we both accidentally put our toast on the same cutting board afterwards, then mine is likely contaminated. If I go to a restaurant and order one of their gluten-free meals, but it’s prepared in the same pan or cut with the same knife as someone else’s meal with gluten—which of course, I can’t see because it’s happening in the back of the kitchen—then my food is likely contaminated. The chance of cross-contamination makes going out to restaurants or even other people’s homes for a meal challenging and frightening. So far, I haven’t even tried.
Back in 1988, I finally quit smoking. At the time, it seemed so hard that I often thought I’d never make it. But sometimes the circumstances of your life put things in perspective for you. Now, in 2012, as I am trying to quit gluten, I wish the quitting process would be as relatively easy now as it was when I gave up nicotine.