Chances are you have noticed the recent surge in gluten-free products and may have gotten caught up in the hubbub yourself. I know I have! Gluten-free is currently one of the biggest trends in the food industry. Since 2012, sales of gluten-free products have increased by 63% and over 4,500 new products were introduced to the market last year. But what exactly is gluten and what does gluten-free mean? Are gluten-free products healthier? Time to cut through the clutter and get to the bottom of what it all really means.
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, rye, and most oats. It gives elasticity to dough, helps it rise and keep its shape, and binds breads, pasta, and desserts to create a denser and chewier product. People who have celiac disease, which affects approximately 1% of the population, must avoid gluten. Celiac disease occurs when the body’s natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. Without this healthy intestinal lining, the body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs. Symptoms of celiac disease include anemia, skin rash, mouth sores, dental and bone disorders, tingling in legs and feet, diarrhea, bloating, muscle cramps, and constipation (Check out a great infographic here to help you identify common signs and symptoms!). About 6-10% of people have a gluten sensitivity. Those with gluten sensitivities test negative for celiac disease but their symptoms improve when gluten is avoided. Gluten sensitivities often affect people with IBS, neuropathy (nerve pains, numbness), autoimmune disease (MS, Crohn’s), and inflammation (Lyme, fibromyalgia).
In August 2013 the Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule formally defining what “gluten-free” actually means. The labels “without gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “no gluten” also fall under these new rules. As of August 5, 2014, any food product bearing these labels must meet the following rules:
- Limit gluten to less than 20 ppm (parts per million);
- Not contain an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains; and
- Not contain an ingredient derived from any of these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten.
For those of us who don’t fall into the celiac disease or gluten sensitivity categories, it is important to note that just because something is labeled as gluten-free doesn’t mean that it is healthier (case in point -> potato chips are gluten-free). Food companies have jumped on this trend and have used all of their marketing powers to convince us that gluten-free is better. But gluten-free products are often higher in fat, sugar, sodium, and calories. A lot of products are also not enriched or fortified with nutrients like folic acid and iron like wheat products commonly are. Gluten-free products are most often more expensive, sometimes even double the cost, than their conventional counterparts.
So what should you do? If you suspect that you have celiac disease, I encourage you to go get tested at your doctor’s office. But it is difficult to test for a gluten sensitivity. Keep a food diary and note how you feel after eating products with gluten. If you feel better avoiding gluten, then maybe cut it out for an extended period of time to see how it affects your overall health. It may be the answer you are looking for. If gluten does not bother you, there really isn’t any reason to buy gluten-free products unless you choose to do so.
Most whole foods are naturally free of gluten, including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, eggs, fish, poultry, meat, some grains (quinoa, rice, millet, cornmeal/polenta, and buckwheat), and some dairy. Read your food labels (see a recent post for more on this!). Wheat is clearly labeled and barley can be found on a label under malt, malt flavoring, malt vinegar, beer, or brewer’s yeast. Also stick to the perimeter of your grocery store where all of the whole foods are located.
Some of my favorite gluten-free products include Udi’s bread products (so good toasted with some coconut oil spread on top!), Bob’s Red Mill oats and gluten-free baking products, quinoa and rice pastas, and corn tortillas. My go-to gluten-free beer alternative is hard cider.
Peace, love and whole food,