This is a guest post by Thalia Prum, Accredited Practicing Dietitian.
Gluten free: A favorite claim in the food packaging world. Gluten free bread, gluten free cookies, gluten free pasta, gluten free water, gluten free gluten. The whole world’s gone gaga for gluten free. It seems every man and his dog are preaching the benefits of gluten free diets. What does the science say? Fad, fiction, fact or downright foolish?
But first, what is celiac disease (CD)? It is an autoimmune disease where the body reacts negatively to gluten.
What isn’t CD? Ordering from the ‘gluten free’ menu at a restaurant because you want to feel special.
What else isn’t CD? Feeling sick after you put too much in your pie hole.
What definitely isn’t CD? Farting after you eat a sandwich (oh yes, I said it!)
CD is characterized by damage to the intestines caused by gluten. The damage is flattening and chronic inflammation of the ‘villi’ in the intestines, termed ‘villous atrophy’ (see Fig 1).
These ‘villi’ are finger-like projections lining your gut that increase surface area and allow your body to absorb food particles and nutrients. Another way to think of this is opening your hand: Your fingers are like the villi in your gut. Now if you make a fist, your fingers are gone and all that’s left are your knuckles that are pretty flat in comparison (much less surface area and harder for your body to absorb nutrients).
The first step to diagnosing CD is a blood test. Blood screening alone is not enough to diagnose CD. Positive blood tests require a small bowel biopsy to identify villous atrophy and thus confirm CD.
What is not a CD diagnosis? Your friendly neighbor, or other non-health professional friend telling you you’ve got CD.
Those whose medical tests confirm CD are prescribed a strict gluten free diet for life.
Now that we understand gluten and CD, the next part of the journey is evaluating the validity of the gluten free craze in the general population as it reaches glutenous maximus.
We’ve all read it, heard it or talked about it: Why not go gluten free? The worst answer out there is “it just makes sense”. Actually, it doesn’t “just make sense” at all.
The claim “we eat too much gluten in modern times” is thrown around pretty often. Many modern packaged foods contain gluten, and yes, people who eat them probably do consume more gluten than in times gone by. But this is still no reason to give gluten the boot.
People foolishly think that going gluten free means weight loss. It is true that people diagnosed with CD often lose weight after switching to the necessary gluten free diet. But hold the phone, let’s discuss.
4 Reasons people lose weight when they go gluten free:
- A gluten free diet is daunting and restrictive
- Many high calorie ‘junk’ foods can no longer be eaten
- Many staple foods like bread, cereal and pasta can no longer be eaten either
- Fresh, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables (naturally gluten free) are cheap and easy options.
Ta-da! Cutting out the hamburgers, pies, Corn Flakes, cakes and cookies, coupled with eating more fruit and vegetables… Sounds like a solid recipe for weight loss. It’s gluttony rather than gluten that is to blame for weight problems.
First off, let’s look at packages that state ‘gluten free’ without using it as a marketing tool:
Now we move to the packages that attempt to confuse consumers into thinking they are great and healthy options by slapping on various phrases, including ‘gluten free’.
This package uses the phrase “Nourishing kids in motion”, basically saying “if your kid does a sporting activity, this product is good for them”:
Next, it states “gluten free” between the phrases “real fruit rope” and “excellent source of vitamin C”… So I’ll play captain obvious:
- It’s a fruit flavored rope, not to be confused with actual ‘real’ fruit
- An excellent source of vitamin C would be real fruit
- Slapping “gluten free” in with the above phrases attempts to make this product seem healthier
This package epitomizes using key words to sell an unhealthy product masquerading as a healthy one. The term “superfood” is not regulated. Would you buy a bucket of organic, gluten free lard if the manufacturer tagged on the word “superfood”? Just because they say it’s super, doesn’t mean it is. I can dress up my 92 year old grandfather in a superman costume… that doesn’t mean he can fly.
Kale is a dark green leafy vegetable that is healthy. In it’s raw form, 2oz of kale = 30 calories. This 2oz bag of glorified gluten free chips contains a whopping 320 calories. Super indeed.
Just to note, the nutrition panel states this bag is two serves…pfft.
Next up, we have a direct comparison between two ‘like’ products: Pretzels. The gluten free variety (Glutino) is pictured above the regular variety (Snyder’s). When looking at calories, total fat and salt (sodium) in a 1oz serve of each product, the gluten free version strikes out time and time again.
- Calories: Regular = 110 vs. Gluten free = 120
- Fat: Regular = 0g vs. Gluten free = 3.5g
- Sodium: Regular = 250mg vs. Gluten free = 420mg (!!!)
Generally, gluten free packaged foods are higher in one or more of fat, sugar and salt to help compensate for the texture and taste difference when gluten is removed. This demonstrates how gluten free foods do not equal a healthier option (for those who don’t need to avoid gluten).
Lastly, and my favorite finding from my stupendous supermarket excursion: Gluten free sweets in the form of shortbread cookies.
The packaging claims are ridiculous:
- “Simply Natural” (top left) doesn’t equal healthy
- Ricin, arsenic, lead, cyanide and anthrax are also ‘simply natural’… We don’t go around eating them
- “Simply Balanced” and “Simply Nutritious” (center left and top right)
- What does this even mean? This product’s first two ingredients are butter and sugar… which of those sound “balanced” or “nutritious”?
- As a side note, the regular shortbread cookies (Walkers) had 4g of sugar per 1oz, where the gluten free cookies were double that at 8g
Here’s the take home gossip from this gloriously glutinous gab-fest:
- Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease requiring a lifelong gluten free diet to prevent chronic intestinal damage
- Without diagnosed celiac disease, there is nothing wrong with gluten in your diet. It comes down to portion size and selecting whole grain options
- “Gluten free” foods are not automatically healthy
Thalia Prum is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Nutritionist (APD and AN) who prides herself in being the ever witty, facetious, sarcastic, science quoting, ‘myth-busting dietitian’. In addition to writing, Thalia is available to speak about nutrition, health and wellness. Find Thalia on Facebook and twitter @pieholeblogger.