Some background: what does gluten-free mean?
Before I go into my thoughts on the healthfulness of going gluten-free, I wanted to make sure everyone knew what gluten-free meant. The Food and Drug Administration proposed the term gluten-free to aid in food labeling to help those who have celiac disease and those caring for them identify what foods they could eat.
What’s Celiac Disease?
“Celiac disease is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the small intestine in genetically susceptible individuals. It is triggered by ingesting certain proteins, commonly referred to as, gluten, which is naturally present in some cereal grains.”
In other words, celiac sucks. Quite literally, gluten eats away the cilia in the small intestine. Nasty stuff. It causes pain, cramping, a wide range of digestive issues, and will lead to serious health risks if ignored.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the substance in wheat and other grains that enables their elasticity. When mixed with a liquid and kneaded, the gluten forms a specific complex of proteins, which makes it elastic, helping it rise.
Gluten exists in grains, like: wheat (and varieties of wheat, like spelt and kamut), barley, rye, and possibly oats. (Although you can find gluten-free oats now.) That’s why gluten-free grains that are milled into flours, like rice, teff, amaranth, millet, quinoa, and others don’t rise into fluffy soft breads like gluten-containing grains do.
Is gluten-free healthier?
Gluten-free is definitely healthier if you have celiac or a sensitivity to gluten or wheat. But as with anything, not all products are created equal. Label reading is a must, as it is with any food.
The good news: Gluten-free foods have become much more available. YAY!
The bad news: Big companies all want a piece of the profit and some are cutting corners on product. BOO!
My Mom brought me home a bag of gluten-free pretzels. She was so excited because a mainstream brand carried them at a chain grocery store and they were $1.50 cheaper than other brands. Score, right? Call me a pessimist, but I immediately suspected foul play. I looked at the list of ingredients: corn starch, potato starch, tapioca starch, followed by a long list.
Starches aren’t flours. They may be gluten-free, and they can be combined with gluten-free flours as a blend, but they should not be the ONLY component. They contain no fiber, or substantial vitamins or minerals from the grain. In fact, as explained in the book Wheat Belly, these starches can be hard for our bodies to digest. Plus, they are higher on the glycemic index. They aren’t the healthy options that whole grain brown rice, teff, amaranth, or quinoa flours are. Some starch in a product is ok, but IMO starches shouldn’t be the entire “flour” component.
Don’t assume that just because a product is labeled as gluten-free that it’s healthy. Always read your labels for a list of ingredients. Look for real grains – even if products are gluten-free, they should still contain whole grains.
An easy rule of thumb to follow: A starch listed later on the list is ok. Ingredients are listed on labels in order of their quantity in the food. If the starch is near the end of the list, ok, if it’s first, toss it back.
As always, check grams of fiber, sugar, protein, fat, and calories. It may seem like a hassle in the store, but it will be a bigger hassle later when you get those stomach cramps or see the scale climb a couple pounds. 🙁
If you need help…
Going gluten-free or evaluating if you should, don’t hesitate to contact me!
Steph saysMarch 25, 2013 at 7:20 pm
Great post! People are frequently saying that gluten free is healthier and just the other day a Ciropractic told me she tells all her patients to go gluten free! I think my main issue is that if you go gluten free it makes it almost impossible to do a proper test to see if you are coeliac! So I definetly suggest people see an expert
Angela saysMarch 25, 2013 at 8:52 pm
Steph, Thank you for your feedback! I agree that people should seek out expert advice. If practitioners are going to recommend going gluten free, I with they would give patients/clients the rest of the info – that all GF products are not created equal and that GF doesn’t automatically mean healthy. Here’s to getting the word out!