The Downside of Gluten-Free Food

Had you been living on a remote tropical island for the past 10 years and just returned home, you’d be surprised by some of the changes on your local supermarket shelves. One of the hottest trends in the last few years is the growth in availability of gluten-free products.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. A small percentage of the population cannot properly digest gluten and must avoid it. Products labeled as gluten free assure these people they can eat without worry.

According to Nielsen, over $4 Billion worth of products claiming to be gluten-free were sold in the last 12 months, up 13% from a year before that. This is a market that virtually did not exist only a few years ago. The Wall Street Journal reports that 60 million people purchased at least one gluten free (GF) product in the past year.

This is great news for people who suffer from celiac disease or wheat allergies. In the past they had to go to specialty stores, prepare many foods from scratch, or just go on with a limited variety diet.

Here is the really interesting number – only 1% of the population has celiac disease. Why would everyone else be jumping on the GF bandwagon?

There are several possible answers:

1. Some people believe they have gluten sensitivity, a “lighter” form of celiac disease. Since both celiac and gluten sensitivity may appear at any point in life without warning, people may attribute a sudden change in bowel movements, weight loss/gain, and other symptoms as a sign they have gotten the “gluten bug”.

2. It is not a simple task to ascertain if you have gluten sensitivity. It requires a series of tests drawn out over time.

3. Some limited studies have shown that gluten free diets may help relieve the symptoms of autism and ADHD in children.

4. Last but not least – Marketing. When a trends starts to pick up, lots of money is invested making sure people will buy in. It seems to be working.

What’s the downside to all of this?

There are several issues with gluten free foods:

1. They are more expensive. If you don’t need GF products, why pay more?

2. In order to compensate for the culinary properties of gluten in a bread (chewiness, volume), alternative ingredients and additives are used. These make for some very highly processed food products by the time they hit the supermarket shelves, higher in fat, carbs, calories, and unwanted ingredients. That’s not to say all GF products are full of crap, far from it. But gluten-free does not guarantee a healthy, nutritious item.

What to do at the supermarket:

We don’t envy the people who have gluten issues. Whether you do or you don’t, if you’ve decided to purchase a gluten free product, read the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient lists.

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  • Diane

    Or, you can go the whole foods route and not worry about processed gluten free foods. I am a diagnosed celiac and I make all of my own baked goods using sorghum, millet, quinoa and teff flours since they are better grains that rice. This way I know what goes into my food.

  • elisabeth

    Sometimes I buy food that is labeled “gluten free” not because I’m looking for that in a food (I’m not) but because it seems to be the best choice on the shelf. And some foods are naturally gluten free and are using the label just because it may add a few purchasers.

  • Tuck

    “2. It is not a simple task to ascertain if you have gluten sensitivity. It requires a series of tests drawn out over time.”

    The “tests” that are available via your doctor are not 100% accurate, and are only for celiac. The only 100% accurate way to test is to avoid wheat for a period of time, and then eat it and see if you have a reaction. The reaction can be immediate, or shortly after consumption.

    Most of the gluten-free foods are, as you note, pretty highly processed and probably ought to be avoided even if you do have a wheat sensitivity.

  • Grace Chimene RN CPNP

    This is so true. Please don’t place your child on a restricted diet without consulting your health care provider. There are blood tests for Celiac disease.
    If a child is to be tested with an intestinal biopsy then they need to be eating gluten for the test to be accurate.

  • LeahS

    Many good points here, I’d like to add that a diet without gluten doesn’t have to be restrictive nor unhealthy. As Diane says you can make everything yourself, but if you plan ahead and shop ahead and find the right foods/companies, you can also buy some.

    Also, when my son was diagnosed with Autism 5 years ago, I was advised to try a gluten free/casien free diet. It was tough, but we planned ahead and made it work. Later we went to a Naturopath who told us some other foods that Jordan was “intolerant/sensitive” to, and we removed them as well. He does not have any instant, outward reaction to gluten/casien or any of the intolerances, but we all note that there is behaviour changes, he becomes disregulated and upset easily, crys etc the day afterwards. Not long after, we all got tested, eliminated foods and we are all healthier in every way.
    Not all foods are good for all people, even a small intolerance can change your life. An intolerance will never show up on an allergy test, and we often can’t tell what bothers our systems without professional help, our systems are usually messed up to much.

  • Carol

    Yes… rice flour (and it’s rarely even wholegrain) is overused in gluten-free foods. It lacks fiber, texture and taste. I’ve mentioned this to manufacturers at trade shows and it seems some are starting to incorporate more interesting/nutritious grains/roots/nuts in these products to make them more attractive to anyone. But whenever you move away from big-Agriculture/subsidized grains the price will go up. Getting better nutrition and taste will be worth the price for some… and those with the time can make their own.

    Keep in mind that celiac is under-diagnosed — we don’t know how many people have it because most of the symptoms are similar to other conditions. Most don’t know they have it and don’t get it checked out until it becomes chronic … and then there is the challenge/hassle of getting it diagnosed. Recent studies indicate it is much more common than we thought, and can start at any time in life:

  • kim

    And when a family member eats gluten-free, often the whole family does too. Three of the five of my family need a gluten-free diet, so all family meals are gluten-free (I’m not cooking two different dinners!) And when we eat out, we only choose places where the celiacs can safely eat (which, in Canada, means we eat restaurant food a LOT less…).

  • Laura

    Avoiding processed foods in general is a good idea, gluten free or not.
    A GF diet doesn’t have to be restrictive at all, as LeahS mentioned above. Quinoa, millet, amaranth, brown rice, and buckwheat are all very nutritious and delicious grains.
    We rely heavily on wheat and wheat products in our Western culture. Gluten is not an easy thing to digest. When eaten in excess (3+ meals a day) we over-burden our bodies, leading to the rising number of people with a gluten intollerance. Try adding some variety of grain in your diet by enjoying these options.
    A dehydrator is also a useful tool for making your own crackers – no grains needed. A blend of flax seeds, tomatoes, kale and herbs/spices make yummy crackers!
    There are plenty of GF flours that lend themselves well to make great muffins, loaves, cookies and special treats that a GF diet often restricts. With a little experimenting in the kitchen, it’s easy to make these as appealing as their gluten-laden counterparts.

  • Destination Healthy Foods

    Yes, you do have to be careful with this movement and the eating of refined products of any kind.

  • APC

    I feel that the gluten-free thing needs to be addressed like this more. I first noticed it often going hand-in-hand with veganism/raw food-ism in specialty restaurants… and in my own restaurant I am noticing an inordinate amount of special orders reading GLUTEN ALLERGY but also SUBSTITUTE VEGGIES FOR RICE, NO BUTTER. I think a lot of the gluten free-ers need to question their restriction, and that it may be unnecessarily self-imposed. A few of my cooks refer to gluten free as “atkins for the Juicy sweatsuit crowd”.

  • Gluten Intolerance

    Yes, most of the gluten free foods are more expensive than normal food we ate. There are also some people who are not gluten that takes gluten free diet because of awareness in the place and believing that they are gluten intolerant.