Gluten Free Expos – It’s All Relative!

If you’re feeling a little alone in your gluten free (GF) journey, there’s a fantastic place you can go to get some respite from the drudgery we call our lifestyle. It’s almost like a family reunion, minus the whacky uncle or aloof cousin, yet strangely similar with people like me, whacky and aloof when it comes to food. That place is a gluten free expo. I am embarrassed to say that in my nine years of being GF, I cannot believe I waited until year eight to seek one out, but I attribute it to one reason in particular: I didn’t really know there was such a thing.

The first expo I attended was last year in St. Petersburg, FL as a blogger. I had the best conversations with other people who struggled with the same stuff I go through. Of course, my task was to social media my way through the expo, then write about all of the goings on, which was fine, but my curious self wanted to understand more about the folks attending the event. So, at my next expo, in Columbia SC, I put together a brief survey and wrote another article about what I learned, and wow, was it eye opening. I simplified my data gathering at the recent expo in Columbus, Ohio only because I was busy with the honor of demonstrating how to make Chicken Nuggets and Ravioli to the record breaking crowd that attended this two day event.

Now, understand, this survey isn’t scientific or verified by any formal source. But I had about 100 Midwesterners stop by and share their thoughts and realities with me. So I asked four simple questions this time around, and here is what I found:

The first question was “WHY ARE YOU GF?” 41%  stated they had celiac disease, 16% were gluten sensitive and interestingly, 41% for other reasons (allergy, autoimmune or other health reason). Just a year ago, “other” category was only 11%, leading me to believe that gluten is often linked to many an issue. I read so much anymore about the inflammatory nature of gluten, dairy and sugar. The more of us who band together, regardless of our reason, hopefully the better the awareness and options that’ll be available to us as time goes on. And one would think that would lead to healthier lives, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Next up was “HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN GLUTEN FREE?” This question is always interesting to me. One would assume that expos would draw many, many people new to this lifestyle, but that is not necessarily the case – the largest group (about 50%) had an overall longevity of 4 years GF.  The “newbies,” those at it less than a year, represented under 25% of the folks answering the question.  It’s the 47% who have been at it longer than four years that intrigues me. One of the respondents has been GF for 29 years!  Based on what I said earlier about my first expo experience happening at the 8 year mark, my behavior actually fits the statistic. Just looking at my own world, this lifestyle gets to be a bit isolating. Although I had to travel to get to an expo, I found it to be so worthwhile. Not because of all the samples and products (although that’s pretty awesome), but because it confirms I am not alone, my story isn’t all that unique, and more importantly, as we come together in greater numbers, the chances of finding and encouraging the creation of better food options, awareness of the it’s-not-a-fad assumptions and just making our lives more normal becomes more of a reality.

“WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST FRUSTRATION” is something I pay close attention to. Although it’s come a long way over the past, let’s say, decade, the second biggest frustration, dining out and get togethers, still needs a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but risk of cross contamination continues to be the main reason I develop anxiety at the mention of dining out or going an event or even a friend’s house for a meal. For that reason alone, I could be considered rather anti-social for bowing out of many an invitation. I have found a few lone places I trust to dine out at (but still never let my guard down and ask incessantly about ingredients and preparation because God forbid, something changed). When asked over to a friend’s house, many times I bring my own stuff, or better yet, invite them to my place and cook for them. I’m not going to hold my breath that any of this will change until the world is rid of gluten, and we all know the chances of that.

The biggest frustration of the survey group revolved around food quality, taste, texture and availability. I’d like to say everything at the expo was delicious, and equal in taste and texture with the gluten-filled stuff, but rating taste and texture is based on personal preferences, so for some, they found a few new favorites and acceptable substitutes. For others, expos are a great way to try before you buy, so they can eliminate some options that just don’t fit. With over 24 different GF flours and other ingredients out there, one would believe there is some combination of ingredients that hits on your own memories of what food should taste like. I guess we should be glad the options continue to expand for us.

MOST MISSED FOODS? Because the bulk of what I do revolves around creating GF recipes, I always want to know what foods people miss the most since going GF. In Columbus, like most other places, it’s no surprise bread and pizza topped the list (check out my bread and pizza recipes and see if they fit with your personal preferences). For the first time ever, a new response appeared – and it actually rivaled “pasta” as a most missed food…Pierogies! Of course, that just became a challenge pretty much laid right at my feet. So, along with this article, I’ve also posted a pierogi recipe that has a dairy free option!

If you have never attended an expo before, consider finding one and check it out. In Columbus, I found out lots of people traveled a few hours to get there, some as far as from Detroit. Search “Gluten Free Expos” and you may be fortunate enough to have one coming your way. You just may find something almost as awesome as the long lost family you’ve been looking for!