Idly scrolling through Twitter last week I received an unexpected wake-up call in a photo of two grains of wheat. Not a shocking image per se, but when the grains are in the palm of a coeliac, you know the chances are they’ve been found in something to eat. True enough, the wheat came from a bag of lentils.
I’ve been cooking dried pulses and grains for years without a second thought, but this image, and the aftermath, has changed all that that.
After seeing Carly’s tweet, I went to soak some Puy lentils. For the first time ever, I put a thin layer on a wide plate and picked them over. Immediately, without even looking very hard, I spotted 6 grains of wheat.
Then I remembered all those periodic discussions about precautionary allergen-labelling on pulses, such as 'may contain' or 'not suitable for…', which I usually dismiss out of hand without even thinking there would actually be a risk.
Some dried pulses and grains are labelled GF, others aren’t. Some have warnings about stones, others gluten, or nuts. Some have labels that say they’re packed in facilities which handle gluten and other allergens. Typically the ingredients state ‘green lentils’ or ‘100% red lentils’.
But there is a real risk of contamination of these products. Crops are planted in rotation and it’s inevitable that seeds from previous years’ grow amongst the current crop - whilst at almost every subsequent process down the line, including harvesting, processing and packing, there is the possibility of contamination occurring.
It’s actually quite likely we’ll find some gluten-containing grains in our pulses. The weird thing is that I’d never actually looked before.
Tricia Thompson from Gluten Free Watchdog has written extensively about the risks of finding gluten in other grains, lentils in particular. In one scientific study she writes ‘Some inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours not labeled gluten-free are contaminated with gluten. This potential risk of contamination is a health concern for people with celiac disease, who must follow a gluten-free diet. The consumption of these products can lead to inadvertent gluten intake.’
So if it’s common to find gluten in pulses and other grains, what should we do?
A thorough rinsing in a coarse sieve will get rid of dust and a visual check should identify whole grains. But of course not everyone rinses pulses and if you’re eating out you have no control over the way food is prepared.
There is also the question of canned foods. I had a look at Sainsbury’s tinned lentils, and whilst their dried packs have precautionary allergen-labelling (PAL) the tinned ones don’t.
In this minefield, it’s hard to know what’s best.
We assume that companies who use the label ‘gluten free’ on pulses and grains have a series of measures in place to ensure their products meet allergen requirements. But as the pictures show - and Tricia’s tests confirm, the reality is that pulses and grains do often contain grains of wheat, barley or oats, whether they’re labelled GF or not.
So it’s certainly worth playing safe and picking over and rinsing all pulses and grains, whatever the pack states.
It’s stressful though, as a wide variety of whole grains and pulses is recommended to balance a GF diet low in fibre and vitamins, and it’s a little ironic that these products are likely to include the very allergen we have to avoid.
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