In recent years, the term gluten-free has become a bit of a nutrition buzzword. Although eating gluten-free most certainly has validity, namely for individuals with celiac disease, some people are simply opting for gluten-free products because they believe they are a healthier choice without fully understanding why, but is that accurate? Are gluten-free products healthier than conventional options? Let’s take a look at the facts.
What is gluten?
Although often referred to as a single compound, gluten is a collective term for the proteins found in certain cereal grains, including wheat, spelt, barley and rye. When flour is mixed with water, it is the gluten proteins, specifically the glutenin and gliadin, that form a sticky network that has a glue-like consistency to help provide shape to grain-based products. Essentially, gluten provides elasticity to dough making bread chewy, pizza dough elastic and noodles tender.
Problems with Gluten
Although the consumption of gluten is fine for some, for others it can pose serious health issues. For individuals with celiac disease, the consumption of gluten triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine, damaging the villi; the small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and promote nutrient absorption. The damage to the villi can lead to a variety of symptoms and result in an inability of the body to absorb nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, which are necessary for good health. For this reason, individuals with celiac disease must avoid gluten at all costs.
In addition to celiac disease, there is a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity that does not have the conditions of celiac disease yet individuals still experience intestinal and other symptoms. Although this has been downplayed in the medical field and the media, as gluten intolerance is often seen as all-or-nothing, a growing body of evidence suggests that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not only real but a growing health issue. The symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity are highly variable and can include bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea; symptoms mimicking irritable bowel syndrome.
Taking all of that into consideration, the question remains, if you are trying to avoid gluten for health reasons or are trying to avoid gluten because you think the alternative is better for you, is it as simple as opting for the gluten-free version? As always, the answer is; it depends.
Not all Gluten-Free Foods are Created Equal
Given the growing concerns with gluten noted above, the term gluten-free has become a bit of a buzzword. Unfortunately, the term “gluten-free” has become as much of a marketing buzzword as “low calorie”, “source of fiber” and “high in protein” and it is plastered all over food products lining grocery stores aisles everywhere. However, what is important to understand is that not all gluten-free foods are created equal. Just because a product or food item says it is “gluten-free” does not necessarily mean it is a better or healthier choice than its conventional counterpart. Cookies, crackers, and granola bars can all be labeled gluten-free, but if they are all packed with refined sugar, vegetable oils, and preservatives they still remain a less-than-ideal choice. Processed foods are processed foods whether they contain gluten or not, so whether someone has celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or is just trying to eat a healthier diet, opting for gluten-free processed foods is not a healthy choice.
Most Whole Foods are Gluten-Free
What many people fail to recognize is that most whole foods are inherently gluten-free. In fact, only a very small portion of whole foods, specifically cereal grains, contain gluten while the bulk majority of whole foods are naturally gluten-free. Fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are all inherently gluten-free so focusing on a whole foods diet will inevitably eliminate most sources of gluten from the diet naturally. The problem lies in the fact that gluten-containing foods currently make up a large portion of the modern-day or standard North American diet, as many people are focused on convenience and taste, not whole foods. A typical day of bagels, granola bars, crackers, pasta, and pizza is going to increase an individual’s intake of gluten-containing foods exponentially given they are all forms of processed foods made from gluten-containing grains. Unfortunately, for those trying to eat gluten-free, the natural thought process is often to simply opt for gluten-free versions of these same products assuming they are a healthier choice, but they are missing the mark.
The Ingredients Don’t Lie
There is a big difference between eating foods that are free of gluten and simply eating gluten-free alternatives. By simply choosing gluten-free bagels, gluten-free crackers, and gluten-free granola bars you may be avoiding gluten, but you may also be making a tradeoff for other more damaging ingredients if you are not being careful. The ingredients do not lie, and reading the ingredients is the single greatest tool that you have in your toolkit to determine if the product in question is a healthy choice, whether it contains gluten or not. There are most certainly high-quality gluten-free products on the market that are made with quality ingredients, but you often have to sift through a lot of junk gluten-free products to find them, the same way you do with conventional options. Because the term “gluten-free” has been equated with “healthier”, thanks to good marketing, not good science or biology, people are being duped into thinking that all gluten-free options are better options simply because they do not contain gluten which is not the case.
Unconventional Uses of Gluten
To make matters even worse, gluten itself is being used in our food in many unconventional ways. Thanks to its stickiness and elasticity, gluten is often used as an additive in many grainless processed foods including; broths, vinegars, fake meats, sausages, sauces, energy bars, and much more. Not only are these foods themselves processed foods, but the addition of gluten in its untreated state only exacerbates the issues it can cause.
The Preparation of Gluten-Containing Grains is Key
What is important to understand is that when it comes to grains (the source of gluten), preparation is key. It is the actual use and preparation of the gluten-containing grains that will determine if the product made from them is ideal or not. Because all grains contain various forms of anti-nutrients, gluten being one of them, the way they are prepared is vital to how they are digested, absorbed, and assimilated in the body. When grains are properly prepared by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting, they are more easily digested and their nutrients are more bioavailable to us. When soaked, sprouted, or fermented, the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors are neutralized, and friendly bacteria help to do some of the digesting for us. In fact, it has been shown that the natural process of fermentation helps to break down the proteins found in gluten making them more easily digested once consumed. However, when not properly prepared, grains can have detrimental effects on our digestive health and negatively impact leaky gut. The problem is that most conventional grain-based products are made using grains that are not properly prepared which makes both gluten-containing and gluten-free grains troublesome. It is for this reason that, for individuals without celiac disease, opting for sourdough bread, sprouted grain bread and products made of properly prepared grains is absolutely vital. In fact, for some individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity consuming properly treated and prepared grains can resolve many of their digestive and health issues.
The Bottom Line
Just because a product is labeled gluten-free does not mean it is a healthier choice. The only way to determine if a product, gluten-free or not, is a healthy choice is to read the ingredients. When opting for grain-based products, as with all foods, it is important that you read the ingredients to know exactly what you are getting and how it was made. If you want to limit your gluten intake it is best to focus on whole foods that do not contain gluten in the first place; fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, and opt for naturally gluten-free grains and grain-products that have been properly prepared.