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Food Q&A: I can't eat wheat. How do I avoid it?

Each week, "Today" food editor Phil Lempert responds to your questions about ingredients, cooking and shopping.

Q: I just found out I have a wheat allergy, and now I am looking at the ingredients in many items on the supermarket shelves and finding wheat in items that I never knew had this ingredient. Help! I love to bake and cook as well. Are there alternatives?

— Deborah B., Yonkers, NY

A: Wheat is a staple product in most diets and, as you have discovered, can be found in many products besides just bread and pasta. For the many people that suffer from what allergies or an intolerance, avoiding wheat can be a very daunting task.

Soy sauce, icing, salad dressing, soups, spices, and baking powder, for instance, can contain wheat. Natural and artificial flavorings and modified food starch can contain wheat-derived ingredients.

One of the most important things for you to remember is that wheat flour has many nutritional benefits. Now that you find you must avoid wheat, be sure you replace these nutrients from other sources. Wheat contains calcium, iron, niacin, and thiamin and is also a source of fiber. These vital minerals and vitamins should be replaced and other starchy, fibrous sources should be incorporated into your diet.

First some tips for determining whether wheat is likely to be in a food product:

  • Semolina comes from the outer coat of the wheat ear.
  • Pasta is made from semolina.
  • Bulgur is wheat that has been soaked, cooked, dried and cracked.
  • Couscous is semolina that has been rolled and coated with wheat flour.
  • Beer/lager. Where wheat is used in the brewing process small amounts may remain even after fining.
  • Spirits. Where wheat is used, traces may remain after brewing but will be removed during distillation, so these beverages are wheat-free.

There are, however, many great alternatives:

Rice: This is the alternative flour most people try first. It's fairly bland, which makes it good for all-purpose use. Rice Flour is a good thickener and can be used to make muffins and bread. Rice bread is often described as heavy and dense. White or brown rice give pretty much equal results.

Quinoa: This grain is native to the Andes Mountains of South America. It's easy to digest and has higher levels of calcium, protein, complex carbohydrates, phosphorous, iron, fiber and B vitamins than barley, oats, rice, corn or wheat. As a result, it's ideal for mixing with other flours to increase the nutritional value of what you're cooking or baking. The flour had a delicate, nutty flavor similar to wild rice and can be used to make a variety of items. If used in large quantities, however, it can overpower the flavor or your baked goods.

Sorghum or milo: There are two varieties of sorghum - red and white. Both have a slightly sweet taste. Nutritionally, this grain is high in carbohydrates, fiber, phosphorous, potassium, B vitamins and protein. Sorghum tends to have a gritty texture. As a result, when used for baking breads, sorghum doesn't hold together well. It works best when blended with other flours. Try it when baking flat bread, cookies crackers or pancakes.

Amaranth: The seeds from this broad-leafed plant are used in their whole grain form, milled into flour or puffed into kernels. This flour is high in protein, fiber, calcium and iron. Use Amaranth in cereals, pastas and baked goods. Add water sparingly when using this mildly, nutty-tasting fine flour for baking bread. It can get crusty on the outside before the dough on the inside is done. It also tends to make baked goods brown more quickly.

Cornstarch provides smoothness when mixed with rice flour. Also makes a light dough, but a very fragile one. Use tapioca starch if corn is a problem for you. No pronounced flavor.

Tapioca starch provides a “chewiness” and helps smooth out rice flour. It can substitute for potato starch and cornstarch. No pronounced flavor.

Potato starch is not the same as potato flour. Potato starch provides moister dough, prevents crumbling. No pronounced flavor.

• Soy flour: Used in small amounts, it adds moistness. However, in larger amounts, the flavor is very pronounced and can be overpowering. If you are allergic to everything else, you can mix 1/3 part soy flour with 2/3 rice flour and it will work reasonably well.

Oat flour makes dense but flavorful and tender baked goods. To use if you are allergic to wheat only but not to other grains as it does contain gluten. Oat flour works well in things like quick breads, muffins etc.

• Buckwheat is not a form of wheat; rather, it is an herb, and is suitable for most people with wheat intolerance.

Non-wheat flours have different compositions, and need to be stored differently, and with extra care:

  1. Store flours in airtight plastic or glass containers with a wide mouth, so you can measure over the container.
  2. Flours with more fat and protein, such as brown rice or amaranth flour, need to be refrigerated.  To be safe, refrigerate all your flours.
  3. Cold flours measure differently than room-temperature flours.  When using refrigerated flours, allow them to reach room temperature before using them, unless the recipe states otherwise.
  4. Use a wire whisk to get rid of flour clumps before you measure.

Once you have adjusted your taste buds (along with your investigative label reading and recipes) you’ll find that avoiding wheat isn’t nearly as daunting as it may seem now. In fact, I am sure you’ll find many healthy and even tastier replacements.

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to Phil.Lempert@nbc.com. If he uses your question in one of his columns, it may be edited for length and clarity. (Your full name and e-mail address will not be used.) You can also visit his website at www.supermarketguru.com.