When first going gluten-free, it can seem like gluten is hidden in everything. Even ice cream, restaurant scrambled eggs, and french fries are all suspect. But that doesn’t mean that you have to give up all of your favorite foods entirely.
Polenta is a great gluten-free substitute for pasta. Polenta is similar to grits, but it’s smoother once it’s done cooking. It’s made by mixing cornmeal with water or milk and stirring constantly over low heat. While it can be eaten plain, it’s best when it’s topped with vegetables, protein, sauce, or cheese.
Originally from northern Italy, polenta has risen in popularity across Europe and the United States. What was once a food associated with peasants can now be found on upscale restaurant menus around the world.
Corn gluten is a misnomer. Corn does not contain gluten, the proteins responsible for negative reactions for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Gluten is found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye.
However, corn does contain its own plant proteins, called zein. According to the Celiac Support Association, most people with celiac disease tolerate corn well.
While it’s rare, some people react to corn similarly to how they react to wheat gluten. Corn’s protein, zein, can cause an autoimmune reaction in some people with celiac disease. Not all people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity will react to corn. But if you find that your symptoms are not easing after removing gluten from your diet, it may be worth experimenting with cutting out corn products as well.
Because cornmeal does not contain wheat or gluten, carefully prepared polenta is safe for people with celiac disease. However, cross-contamination is a concern. Be certain to buy certified gluten-free cornmeal or packaged precooked polenta to ensure that it’s completely free of gluten.
While fresh corn is classified as a starchy vegetable, dried corn, including cereals, popcorn, and cornmeal, is considered a grain. However, both fresh and dried corn has healthy nutrients. Globally, corn is used as a significant source of calories, vitamins, and minerals.
Polenta is really just cooked cornmeal. It’s the name of the dish, not an ingredient. To create cornmeal, corn kernels are ground into a coarse powder. Cornmeal comes in many varieties including white, yellow, and blue. But polenta is traditionally made with yellow cornmeal.
When made with just water and cornmeal, polenta contains many vitamins and minerals, but it’s not a significant source of any of them. However, some varieties are fortified or enriched to increase the nutritional value. Polenta made with milk and added toppings can improve the overall nutrition of the meal.
Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most gluten-free products are made from refined carbohydrates like rice and potatoes instead of whole grains. The American Diabetes Association recommends cornmeal as a way to increase whole grains in the diet.
Despite being nearly 90 percent carbohydrates, polenta contains fiber that helps you to feel full and reduces blood sugar spikes. One-quarter cup of dried cornmeal or polenta has about 130 calories, 2 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of protein.
To make polenta at home, use medium or coarse-ground cornmeal. Some brands sell cornmeal listed as “polenta” to make selection easier. You can also use quick-cooking or prepared polenta that is sold in a tube-shaped package. Flavor and consistency will differ between the different options. Homemade polenta cooked slowly with constant stirring will create a creamy porridge. Packaged polenta will hold together and be more like a firm loaf.
For the most nutritious polenta, use stone-ground cornmeal or cornmeal that is fortified with iron and other micronutrients. Stone-ground cornmeal retains some of the corn’s hull and germ, which makes it more nutritious. Avoid cornmeal that has been "de-germed" because it means that the germ has been removed and it’s no longer a whole grain.
One recent study in the Journal of Animal Science suggests making polenta with milk or cheese to add protein and iron. You’ll also get vitamins A, B, D, and K.
Polenta can be a great part of a nutritious, gluten-free meal. The subtly flavored cereal makes a great base for veggies, sauces, and proteins. It can also be used as a substitute for french fries, or for noodles in lasagna, if cooked in a flat pan first. Adding vegetables for fiber and a healthy fat will create a balanced meal and help slow the absorption of polenta’s carbs.
Whether you make it fresh at home or buy premade polenta, be sure to check the package for a gluten-free label to ensure that it was not made in a facility that also processes wheat or gluten. If you buy stone-ground cornmeal, be sure to store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent its oils from spoiling.