“Gluten-free” doesn’t mean it’s better for you

September 22, 2014 in Leslie's Featured Content

“Gluten-free” doesn’t mean it’s better for you

If you’ve given up gluten, you could be doing your diet – and your body – a disservice.  Depending on which gluten-free foods you swap for wheat, it’s very possible you’re missing out on fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

A gluten-free diet is a necessity for people with celiac disease, a lifelong inherited disorder that causes the body’s immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye and barley – is eaten.

People with a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity also benefit by avoiding gluten.  These individuals test negative for celiac disease but react poorly to gluten experiencing symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, low energy and headache.

Recently though, gluten-free diets have caught on with people who aren’t sensitive to the protein in the belief it’s a healthier way to eat.  According to a new study from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, one-third of participants perceived foods labeled gluten-free to be healthier than the gluten-containing version.  In truth, this often isn’t the case.

Many gluten-free foods are made from white rice flour and starches (e.g. potato, tapioca and cornstarch). As a result, they’re low in fibre and protein.  Many gluten-free breads for example – even those labeled multigrain – have no more than 1 gram of fibre and 2 grams of protein per slice, one-third the fibre and half the protein found in many slices of 100% whole wheat bread.

Refined gluten-free breads, cereals, pastas and baked goods also have a high glycemic index, meaning they cause blood sugar and insulin to spike which, in turn, can trigger hunger and overeating.  Baked goods formulated to be gluten-free may also be higher in added sugars and/or fats to improve their texture and taste. Not great news if you’re hoping to lose weight by going gluten-free. (Despite the claims found in the best-selling book Wheat Belly, there is no evidence that gluten, per se, causes obesity.)

Most gluten-free flours, breads, pasta products, breakfast cereals and baked goods are also much lower in vitamins and minerals than the gluten-containing products they replace. As a result, people who rely on gluten-free foods, may not be receiving optimum nutrition from their diets.

In Canada and the U.S. there are no regulations to enrich gluten-free breads, muffins, cereals, pastas and flour mixes with nutrients.  On the other hand, B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid as well as iron must be added to white (wheat) flour to restore what’s lost during processing and to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

When it comes to gluten-free foods, it’s up to manufacturers to enrich products with nutrients. Many don’t.

That said, a handful of companies are doing a good job of turning out enriched gluten-free products. Kinnikinnick’s breads and Weston Bakeries’ All But Gluten breads are enriched with vitamins and minerals. So are De Boles multigrain pastas and Duinkerken Foods’ muffin, pancake and pizza mixes.

In Canada and the United States, fortified foods help women of childbearing age meet daily requirements for iron and folic acid, a B vitamin that when consumed in the right amounts before and during pregnancy helps prevent certain birth defects, including spina bifida.

If you avoid gluten - whether you are intolerant to gluten or not – the following strategies will help you consume more fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Choose whole grain.  Gluten free products made with brown rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and amaranth will have more fibre, protein and nutrients than those made with white rice flour.  Look for breads, cereals, pastas and flour mixes with one or more whole grains listed at the top of the ingredient list.

Add ground flaxseed, chia seeds and/or hemp hearts to foods to further boost your fibre intake (along with beneficial plant omega-3 fatty acids).

Look for enriched. The ingredient list will also tell you if a product has been enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals.  Compare brands of similar foods to see if nutrients such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron are listed. 

Include whole foods.  Don’t rely on packaged gluten-free foods for carbohydrates and fibre.  Gluten-free whole grains such as brown and wild rice, quinoa, roasted buckwheat groats (kasha), millet and teff are high in fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Serve them cooked as a side dish or use them to make salads, pilafs and hot cereals.

Sweet potato and legumes (beans and lentils) also deliver low glycemic carbohydrate, fibre and protein along with plenty of disease-fighting nutrients.

Take a multivitamin. Women of childbearing age should take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement to get adequate folic acid and iron.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.