In Search of Gluten-free Goodness

This is a guest post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.

“Gluten-free” is big. There are gluten-free Girl Scout cookies, and even a marketing company putting on large tasting expos around the country. But the products are still evolving from a “make it taste like old-style refined foods” mentality (see: Girl Scout cookie) to something healthier than the same old empty calories.

The recent Gluten & Allergen Free Expo in San Mateo featured around 150 vendors and 2,000 attendees over two days. While the variety of gluten-free grain-based products has greatly expanded, it was challenging to find much to recommend.

The best options for cookies/sweet treats were more like bars or clusters. They can incorporate dried fruits, nuts, etc. for good texture and flavor without relying on as much added sugar or refined flours (something many gluten-free cookies use to excess). Of course, this adds to the price.

I Heart KeenwahI Heart Keenwah snacks get it mostly right by using three forms of quinoa (roasted, puffed and flakes) – for better texture, nutrition and digestibility – as well as nuts for some protein and fat to balance the “sugar effect.” Their organic Peanut Butter Cacao Clusters have a better fiber-to-sugar ratio, and much less saturated fat (1 g – all from nuts) than your average cookie/treat.

The ingredient list:

organic quinoa (whole grain quinoa, quinoa flakes, quinoa crisps), peanuts, tapioca syrup, raw sugar, honey, organic dark chocolate, organic brown rice crisps, organic cacao nibs, baking soda, salt.
nutrition per serving (serving size: 1oz. (28g)): amount per serving: calories 130, fat cal 40, total fat 4.5g (7% dv), sat. fat 1g (5% dv), trans fat 0g, cholest. 0mg (0% dv), sodium 115mg (5% dv), total carb. 19g (6% dv), fiber 1g (4% dv), sugars 7g, protein 3g, vitamin a (0% dv), vitamin c (0% dv), calcium (0% dv), iron (4% dv).

Gluten-free crackers are available at most supermarkets now, but tend to be of the refined (not whole) grain variety – lots of white rice flour, potato starch, etc. A few companies are ditching that style, including Grains of Wellness, which has a line of whole-grain black rice and red rice mini cracker-chips that offer the texture and addictiveness of Triscuit, but gluten-free, non-GMO, and with some anthocyanin content (from the natural pigments).

Ancient Harvest was one of the first to produce a gluten-free pasta. It uses organic quinoa and corn (and water… left off the ingredients list for some reason), with the quinoa ensuring more protein, fiber and iron than in plain corn or rice pastas. Fiber is stated a little higher than would be expected here, but it will still be better than in a refined-grain pasta.

The new/old message is that whole grains, dried fruits and nuts trump (for taste, texture and nutrition) the refined starches (often supplemented with fiber isolates) still being used in gluten-full and gluten-free products. It is possible to find something healthier and gluten-free containing simple ingredients… if you search.

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail@yahoo.com.

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  • Aria Gonzalez

    Interesting. I would try those rice crackers. Of course, the most healthy way to go gluten free is just to eat whole foods…

    • Sharon Kotecha

      I tried the red rice crackers. These were amazing! Very light and crispy.

  • Peter Niepel

    This is exactly what is wrong with our food system. Everybody follows the herd and nobody asks why. Everybody believes things because they are on the internet. Companies support these believes because they make money with them. People feel special because they follow the latest fads.
    There is no scientifically proven evidence that a gluten free diet is giving you any benefit if you are not gluten intolerant. The research which is out there is of such a poor quality or has been done with a non-representative number of individuals (i.e. 16 people which is ridiculous). People who go gluten free and fell so much better see this as proof that gluten is the bad stuff. It could be anything (most likely their body has a problem with factory bread) or could be a placebo effect.
    There is some evidence (again, not properly researched) that eating a gluten free diet can make your body getting weaned off gluten and you can become gluten intolerant. I think the many health food manufacturers producing gluten free products will like that. As I said, not properly researched either. But nobody believes in this because believing that gluten is bad is so much more fashionable at the moment. Lets wait for the next bad food fad.

    In Germany 0.1 – 0.5% are gluten intolerant, but 28% buy Gluten free products. In US the gluten intolerance is at about 1 – 2 %. Australia is same as US. Interestingly, Germany does not have a supermarket bread culture. Most German bread still comes from a proper bakery. US, Australia and many more countries get their bread from the supermarket. This is the problem, factory bread. The more factory bread gets consumed the higher the gluten intolerances in the population. It is the same as it was with milk. The more processed milk was consumed the more people became dairy intolerant. And what did they blame? The milk. Milk is suddenly bad for you. Companies make money with milk replacements like soy milk. Don’t you see it? Processed food is our problem.
    There are more people intolerant to fish and peanuts etc. But nobody says fish and peanuts are bad and stop eating them. Because nobody can make a profit from food labelled “seafood free” and “peanut free”.

    It is the same with fats and sugars. Everything is bad if you follow the internet herd.
    The best diet for you is the one which is not promoted by some “experts” on the internet. What does Michael Pollan say in his Food Rules book: Avoid food which has health claims.

    • Utopia

      Eloquently stated.

    • Farmfemme

      What if it IS gluten? What if it really is that simple?

      • PeterNZ

        What if it is any of the other food know to cause autoimmune responses? Why single out gluten? Do you also avoid egg white, peanuts and nuts in general, seafood and seafood products, strawberries, nightshades like potatoes and tomatoes, any dairy products and many more food? All known to cause autoimmune reactions with many people, some might be more common than gluten intolerances.

        • Lydia

          The protein in wheat mimics the thyroid gland. People with Hashimoto’s Thyroidisitis have a higher incidence of gluten sentiviity as a result.

          I must avoid corn, peanuts, milk, red meat, soy, and gluten. I have had allergy tests and have been diagnosed with autoimmune disorders. I need help in finding what I can eat and what I can’t. Eating whole foods would simplify it all, but it isn’t that easy. So I seek help from others. If that bothers you, then you will need to find a way to overcome this, for it is MY life and MY health. Until you walk in another person’s shoes and deal with their health issues, I really don’t think you should sit in judgment and cast your wide net.

    • Sam J.

      I am 17 years old and even know the answer to this question. gluten is a very low nutrient, toxic, and aggressive carbohydrate. in simple terms, gluten contains molecules that confuse our digestive tract. it is very good at sneaking past the gut barrier in our bodies because it resembles other proteins that are in our body. by the time the wheat proteins have entered our blood stream, the body cannot tell the difference between the wheat proteins and the body proteins and wages an all out war, contributing to inflammation. this happens whether you are celiac, gluten sensitive, or gluten intolerant.
      a diet containing gluten can have everything from inflammation to acne to cellulite to damaged gut health. even if you have been eating gluten your whole life and consider yourself healthy, I encourage you to detox gluten from your body for at least 6 months (this is how long it can take to get gluten out of your body if you are sensitive). eat a diet of pastured meats, eggs, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I think that you will find nutrient-dense diet will do you more good then a diet containing wheat

      • PeterNZ

        Can you please show me some science based evidence that gluten is a carbohydrate and not as the whole world believes a polymer formed from the proteins glutenin and gliadin? Links would be helpful.

        • Sam J.

          i’m sorry, i meant to say wheat is an aggressive carbohydrate.

  • Chef Mike in Burlington ON

    I am so sick of this whole “gluten free is the new Jesus” of healthy eating, despite it being a growing part of my personal chef business. The true simple fact, is that except for the very small %age of the population, the responsible ingestion of foods containing gluten is completely safe and healthy. That being said, eating 1/2 loaf of White Wonder bread every morning is a very different matter, and sadly, those folks get was they deserve, but for the overwhelming %age of the population, whole grain bread made with flour, salt, water and yeast is perfectly safe.
    I now thicken sauces with corn or tapioca starch in case I get to a clients, and one diner says “I don’t gluten”, I stopped serving bread completely (really bugs my European clients!), just in case. I’ve removed all pastry’s from my dessert menu and all breading from my apps and mains rather then try to make a poorer working gluten-free substitute work on site.
    My wife and I eat 1/3 as much gluten as we did 5 years, ago, mostly because age makes getting rid of those carbs a lot harder, but it has nothing to do with gluten free being better for us.

    • Farmfemme

      “My wife and I eat 1/3 as much gluten as we did 5 years, ago, mostly because age makes getting rid of those carbs a lot harder, but it has nothing to do with gluten free being better for us.”

      By this measure its obviously better for you.

    • PeterNZ

      I am a baker. So that puts me on the same level as a drug dealer with all these gluten free freaks.

  • Farmfemme

    The best gluten free snacks don’t pretend to be nastyass, overpriced, super processed versions of grain based foods we shouldn’t have been eating to begin with! If it’s made in a factory, its not food.

    Have an egg, an apple and some jerky.

  • Larry

    Gluten Free is one aspect of this and my household does this as a choice in caloric terms, but the total discussion needs to include NON-GMO as well.
    Having multiple sclerosis, I try and eat whole unrefined foods. My proactive, natural approach has indeed been a benefit in terms of ingesting non-inflammatory foods.

    • Syd

      We’re not freaks, we have to eat gluten free, I hope it doesn’t happen to you

  • Noel

    Tell me about Ancient Harvest Quinoa pasta. Buying retail is expensive for a regular Joe like me. I considered buying in bulk, like 10 or 20 lbs, but the cost of shipping turns out so high that it defeats the purpose of buying in bulk. I don’t find any retail outlets that sell in bulk. Anyone has pointers? (Ancient Harvest customer service wasn’t helpful in this).