Take a minute and ask: Is that really grain-free?

Living the Undoctored and Wheat Belly Lifestyles may take a bit of effort, but the results are so worth it. You have to really think before you order your meals. Hidden sources of grains and corn by-products are lurking in some unlikely places. You may have thought that by skipping the bread/sandwich and choosing the soup-n-salad would ensure that your meal was safe. Think again…

Often the seemingly innocent chicken breast sitting on top of your salad was dusted with wheat flour before cooking to help it retain moisture and achieve that golden-brown color. Or the seasoning used contained grain by-products. Or the fish was marinated in a solution containing the same. Salad dressings and marinades often contain malt vinegar, soy sauce, and flour. Also, watch out for spice blends such as taco mixes and salad seasonings. Pure spices and herbs are fine, but mixes often contain these by-products. Many commercial “cream” sauces and soups get their creamy texture from starch, not real cream. And that starch often comes from wheat flour or corn starch. In fact, most commercial soup manufacturers literally use countless tons of wheat every year to produce canned soup.

Wheat and corn by-products are used as stabilizers and thickeners in many products, of course gravies, but even ketchup and mustard. The same goes for pasta sauce, tomato paste, BBQ sauce and prepared marinades. Keep in mind that this applies to any marinated fish or meat that you buy. You may have thought that soy sauce would be safe, but unfortunately most soy sauce is made with fermented wheat.

Don’t despair: There are so many ways for you to still enjoy delicious meals both while dining out and preparing meals at home. When eating out, make sure to ask your waiter what’s in the seasoning or sauce, or just order your food without it. Obviously, it is much easier to control what goes into your meals when you prepare it yourself. Let’s begin with soups, sauces, and gravies.

In both the Wheat Belly and Undoctored lifestyles, we’ve removed all the standard gravy and sauce thickeners from our kitchen shelves (no wheat flour or cornstarch) despite their widespread use in culinary practices. Even though cornstarch is mostly amylose/amylopectin carbohydrates, there are zein protein residues that are problematic in a grain-free lifestyle, not to mention the excessive carbs, as well.

But, when looking for alternative ingredients to use as thickeners, it would be silly to replace one problem ingredient with another problem ingredient, like replacing unfiltered cigarettes with low-tar cigarettes–not a good switch. Oat flour, rice flour, or other grain flours would not be good replacement choices, as they all share high carbohydrate content and proteins that can mimic some of the effects of wheat gliadin, such as triggering autoimmune inflammation and appetite-stimulation.


Here are my top choices for safe thickeners (in no particular order):

Coconut flour/coconut milk– Coconut flour or coconut milk (canned variety) make a great roux or gravy. If you use coconut flower, the key is to add it slowly and sparingly while heating at a low temperature, e.g., low simmer in a saucepan, stirring in one teaspoon every minute or so. Much more so than conventional thickeners, coconut flour is very hygroscopic, or water-absorbent, and impatience can lead to a pan of concrete, rather than thickened gravy. If any coconut flavor shows through, adding some sea salt, ground pepper, onion powder, ground thyme or other ground seasonings can easily conceal it. Using coconut flour the end-product will be a bit grittier than that made with cornstarch or wheat flour (because of protein and fat content), but the flavor will be wonderful, especially if drippings or homemade stocks are used. You can therefore minimize this gritty effect by using a mixture of coconut milk and flour.

Butter– Dairy does not figure prominently in the Wheat Belly lifestyle, as there are issues with hormone content, whey, some forms of casein, as well as lactose. But butter, especially if organic, is among the least problematic, since it is mostly fat. Because the Wheat Belly lifestyle does not involve any restrictions on fat, saturated fat, or calories, you can “go to town” with butter and enjoy its rich flavors and ability to thicken. You will discover that the longer you are grain-free your taste sensitivity will begin to heighten, making formally tasty sweets taste sickeningly sweet.

Heavy cream– Not my first choice due to the above-mentioned reservations about dairy products that contain more than dairy fat. But, for occasional use, it is a versatile and delicious thickener. You can also add egg yolk for a liaison for added richness (but kept below boiling temperature to avoid coagulating the egg yolk), just as you would in traditional French cooking.

Pureed eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, pumpkin, squash– Just be mindful of your carbohydrate exposure with the higher carb choices such as squash. I love these for soups. Zucchini is the easiest and safest choice for most dishes, both sweet and savory.

Fresh mushrooms– Try pureeing fresh mushrooms as well. It adds another dimension of flavor to your sauce or gravy. One caveat: you need a really powerful chopper or food processor to generate a smooth puree, otherwise you will get a grainy consistency.

Okra– Unlike other veggies, okra does not have to be pureed, but can be added to, say, gumbo, as it cooks on the stove and will yield a wonderful thickening effect that avoids the use of traditional cornstarch or wheat flour.

Nut butters– Aside from peanut butter in Thai dishes, I find these more useful for thickening non-savory dishes, such as a smoothie.

Avocado– In addition to nut butters, avocado is a marvelous thickening agent for smoothies and puddings.

Chia and ground golden flaxseed– These are best reserved for thickening puddings, jams, and smoothies as they tend to yield a not-so-desirable gooey texture that you may not like for a gravy. Chia, however, does make a wonderful thickener for jams and preserves. You can find several easy recipes in the Wheat Belly 30-Minute Cookbook.

See, I told you. Now you have a variety of healthy thickeners that can accommodate any recipe you may encounter. Whether you’re preparing a rich roux for a sauce, gravy for a holiday dinner, creamy base for a soup, green smoothie or raspberry jam, you can have them all while avoiding the potential health risks presented by traditional thickeners.

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Dr. William Davis

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