The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

March 30, 2010

Gluten-Free AND Plastic-Free?

whole wheat breadThis post is not about whether we should consume gluten or not, but how those of us who want to limit our gluten intake can avoid the plastic packaging associated with many gluten-free foods.

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For people with celiac disease, eating gluten causes an autoimmune response that leads to serious health problems. For others, gluten sensitivity can cause digestive problems and other symptoms. Now, I’m not a gluten-free gal, but for several months, I did try eliminating gluten from my diet to see if that would resolve some health issues. It didn’t. But it did give me an understanding of some of the challenges of trying to live both plastic-free and gluten-free.

The shelves of most grocery stores these days are filled with gluten-free alternatives. Cereals, pasta, and even cake mixes come in gluten-free versions.

gluten-free cereal

gluten-free pasta

But just look at all that plastic packaging. Even the boxes of cereal come with plastic bags inside the box. For me, bulk bins were the answer. So many different gluten-free grains can be had from Whole Foods or the local health food store, where you can bring your own bags and skip the plastic.

Grains like quinoa…

gluten-free grains


gluten-free grains


gluten-free grains

or millet…

gluten-free grains

are all available. So what the big deal?

Cross Contamination

The bins shown above release their contents via gravity into your bag or container below. So there is little chance that someone is going to stick a scoop that’s been in the wheat flour into a bin full of millet, for example. But what about bins like these?

gluten-free grains

gluten-free grains

gluten-free grains

Some cross contamination could easily occur on the consumer level with bins that open from the top like these. While many people who eliminate gluten from their diets may not need to be so strict, those with serious allergies have to be very, very careful.

What’s more, cross contamination can occur at the store level as well. As simplesavvy commented on my Bulk Bins post last year,

I don’t buy from bulk bins because of cross contamination. I am gluten free, and it’s not even the scoops that worry me — it’s that there’s no way to guarantee that the bulk bin I’m using this week didn’t contain flour last week. And even if they washed it out, gluten is so sticky that I would be doubtful they got everything.

So, what’s a guten-free plastic-free shopper to do? I racked my brain and then shopped my own kitchen tonight and came up with a few starchy items that are naturally gluten-free and pose no danger of cross-contamination:

gluten-free produce

Potatoes, yams, and squash need no packaging whatsoever.  There are also plenty of recipes that substitute ground nuts for flour.  And here in Oakland, I can get almonds and walnuts from the local farmers market, where there is also no danger of bulk bin cross contamination.

So what about you? Are you concerned about gluten in your diet? Do you worry about cross contamination from bulk bins?  And if so, how do you minimize both the gluten and the plastic?


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Farhan Mahmood
5 years ago

Gluten is healthy for your healththiss all flour ingredient and gluten is the name of protien

Eco-Vegan Gal
12 years ago

I don’t eat gluten and I buy mainly foods in bulk or from the produce section – my diet is very varied, even as a vegan!

13 years ago

I second the buying club idea. If you cook from scratch, it will become your best friend. My only complaint is that I can only order once a month.

We buy millet, hulled sunflower seeds, golden flax, buckwheat groats, and rolled oats (only one person is GF in the family) in 25 lb bags. We also have quinoa in a bag. I think it’s about 12 or 15 lbs.

Millet used to be a once-in-a-while food for us because it cost more than rice. But buying like this, I can get organic millet for the same price as non-organic brown rice at the grocery store.

Finding a buying club can be a little tricky. Look for local food resources in your area, or do some searching online. UNFI and Azure Standard are two big companies that do buying clubs. You can call them to find out if there is a club in your city.

13 years ago

I love the idea of the bulk bins, and I do use them with my little cloth bags, but the problem is that I’d like to know how old the stuff in them is. This is mainly because any flour, nuts, seeds or cereals will oxidize quite rapidly when in contact with the outside air, and then the very good omega 3s they contain turn to unhealthy components (they basically become rancid, which even though they may taste fine, means they are starting to be unhealthy).

13 years ago

Like several others, I have celiac… so gluten had to go. So far, the best way I’ve found to reduce the plastic is buying in bulk and making pretty much everything I eat anymore from scratch. I also grind most of my own flours – so while I can’t risk scooping out of the bulk bins at the store… I just pick up the whole unopened container!

Added bonuses? I’ve lost 65+ pounds (no more fast food, and little junk food adds, or rather subtracts FAST) and my wallet is in better shape too!

13 years ago

Oh and for Condo Blues, there are quite a few good GF beers on the market now. Even my beer snob of a husband thinks they are quite good. And plastic free, too.

13 years ago

I try and reduce the amt of plastic by buying GF flours in the largest bags I can find, rather than multiple little bags. But I won’t risk the bulk bins, its not worth it for me. We do what we can.

Condo Blues
13 years ago

I’m not gluten free but I’m a foodie and will try just about anything one to see if it tastes good. I’ve added a lot of “weird food” as one of my nieces calls it to my diet that way – fine by me!

I tried a gluten free craft beer at a craft beer tasting once. It was wretched. I’d rather run sandpaper over my tongue than drink it again. Fortunately trying other gluten free fare like quiona was a much better experience.

13 years ago

Beth – you are so lucky to live in a place with such copious bulk bins!

When I first started bulk-binning at Whole Foods, I remember seeing ‘Gluten Free’ on many of them. Then, ironically there was a bin of gluten too. Insensitively, I know, I thought that was hilarious… gluten free…gluten free…. all gluten!!!! Then I noticed that bin of gluten dissappeared . Then, I noticed that they stopped labeling foods in the bins ‘gluten free’. Must be because of the reasons you point out.

13 years ago

Wow, thanks for quoting me from way back when! It still holds true, unfortunately — and I’m sorry that going gluten-free didn’t help you the way you hoped!

13 years ago

Buy bulk – 20 lb bags of rice, wheat etc. Share with neighbors if its too much to go thru before it goes bad. Store in 5 gallon bucket (plastic, but used) with screw on lids.

13 years ago

Hi Beth,

My sister has celiac disease, so being gluten-free (at least while she’s around) is very important. We buy Bob’s Red Mill gluten free flour in 5-lb bags at Costco, because they have the best price. It’s a plastic bag, unfortunately. However, given my sister’s health situation, I’d rather know that nothing else is getting into the bag. Also, she never eats anything out of the bulk bins. Ever. So, unfortunately, we can’t eliminate plastic as much as we’d like to (however, when you think of all of the plastic we’d use if she was hospitalized for accidentally eating gluten, we’re probably better off this way). As for health, she has found that in addition to being gluten-free, a mediterranean diet has been best for keeping other health issues at bay.


Sense of Home
13 years ago

I asked my local grocery store to carry bulk in bins and they said they don’t because of the cross-contamination. I will remember to mention there are bins that help prevent this.

13 years ago

Our family went gluten free many times over the last 4 years and while it helped in some respects, there were still times when we were still getting symptoms. A few weeks ago, we came across a video that explained how ALL grains contain gluten. While wheat is approximately 65%, corn isn’t far behind at 55%. Even rice, which is one of the lowest, comes in at 5%. We have noticed a huge difference since going grain free. The only problem is that so many ingredients are derived from corm, that it can make your head spin, like xantham gum and xylitol. So preparing food from scratch solves many problems, including less packaging. It’s a huge gain in many areas !

P.S. (The video can be viewed at I am not affiliated with this site but hope that this information may be of help to others.)

13 years ago

It seems like most things have a trade off – gluten free, plastic free, whole foods. We just have think outside the “plastic bag”. Great post! Looking forward to next weeks “get the plastic out”.

13 years ago

Another option is to join a food-buying club or co-op. I’m not GF, but I buy rice in 25 pound (paper) bags, and other grains or beans like quinoa and red lentils in five-pound boxes (they still are in a plastic bag inside the box, but that’s one bag for five pounds, rather than five one-pound bags; also the Whole Foods had to get its bulk bin food from somewhere; it was probably one of those five-pound plastic bags). Bulk wheat flour comes in paper; maybe bulk flours of other gluten-free types do too.

Simple in France
13 years ago

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Each time I buy something in the organic shop, it seems to be wrapped in plastic! Ack!

But I’ve found a place that has a good bulk section and paper bags to take your bulk purchases away in. No red quinoa, but we’ll survive.

Scott Wells
13 years ago

Chick pea flour (aka, gram flour, besan) can be had in paper sacks, like flour or sugar. I’ve seen it mentioned in gluten-free circles, but it is also a staple for vegans as an egg substitute. Check Indian groceries.

13 years ago

I am not allergic to gluten so I don’t think about it much. And i also son’t worry much about anyone doing a terrorist act on the bulk bins I buy from. MAybe a spider sneaks into the oatmeal bin once in a while, but have never seen anything that looks un- oatmealy in there!

shona~LALA dex press
13 years ago

I have not chosen the non-gluten route + really have no intentions. On a fairly regular basis I have eliminated many foods from my diet + when push comes to shove, I’m not wiling to switch to gluten-free bread + no matter how many times I try, with the best of intentions, coffee is just something I’m not wiling to give up.

I will mention that a big thing for me has been nixing the pre-washed salad mixes + their plastic bags + boxes. I made dinner for some friends + instead of using lettuce I made a red cabbage based salad mainly because it was the only item at the supermarket besides iceberg lettuce (which is never even a consideration) that was not wrapped in some sort of packaging. Unfortunately the nearest health foods store is 30 miles away + I only make a monthly trip for items I cannot find in town.

13 years ago

My daughter is allergic (or it is toxic to her, whichever) to petroleum products. If you want to talk about plastic, how about polyester? She can’t even wear a 100% polyester sweater without it affecting her.

She also cannot ingest gluten, dairy, or artificial flavors & colors. How do I know this? Because it’s been almost a year since she’s been to the hospital for her face swelling up. Before that, she was to several doctors. No answers. But I eliminated gluten and that helped a lot (dairy and artificial ingredients were already done). Even so, she would still get symptoms like what happened before when wearing polyester!

I think what you are doing is great… not only for the fish, but also for people everywhere. You have made me more aware of how much plastic is involved in our lives. It’s very difficult to be free of. Keep up the good work.