Avoiding gluten may be the health fad of the moment, but there’s nothing healthy about many of the products labelled ‘gluten-free'.
When my daughter was diagnosed with intolerance to gluten, I looked at replacing the bread in her diet with naturally gluten-free grains like corn, rice and quinoa. As a child who likes sandwiches for lunch and pizza with friends, she had other ideas.
Fortunately, those looking for gluten-free substitutes for bread, crackers and cakes are today spoilt for choice. Just don’t assume that because these substitutes are gluten-free they are also healthy.
Accredited nutritionist Catherine Saxelby explains that gluten gives foods elasticity and structure, so gluten-free breads, cakes and muffins need the help of additives to provide their texture. This means that many gluten-free substitutes are full of fibres such as carboxymethylcellulose and stabilising gums, including xanthan or guar.
"...People end up eating gluten-free products that have less fibre, more additives, are refined and processed, cost much more, don’t taste as good and just aren’t worth the calories".
As well as these additives, flours used in gluten-free substitutes are also often highly refined, says Saxelby, “so people end up eating gluten-free products that have less fibre, more additives, are refined and processed, cost much more, don’t taste as good and just aren’t worth the calories”.
Meanwhile, manufacturers appear to be capitalising on the perception that gluten-free products are healthier. This is the so-called ‘health halo effect’. Despite this perception, a study of over 3000 gluten-free products on Australian supermarket shelves found that eating gluten-free is unlikely to confer health benefits unless there was clear evidence of gluten intolerance. Instead they concluded, “gluten-free labelling is being used to infer healthiness for discretionary items, which is unwarranted”.
Research from Choice also highlights how companies are capitalising on the popularity of gluten-free diets to charge more for a gluten-free label. According to Choice, brands such as Fantastic sell their gluten-free rice crackers in the gluten-free section of the supermarket with a higher price tag than the Fantastic Original Rice Crackers that, while also gluten-free, are located with the regular crackers.
As well as being an accredited practising dietician, Sally Marchini has first-hand experience of living with coeliac disease. Her advice for anyone eating gluten-free substitutes is to learn to label read and understand the food they’re eating. “Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t make it healthy,” says Marchini. “You can eat healthily on a gluten-free diet but we’re telling people to eat low GI foods, more fibre, less refined flour and many of these substitute foods are all the opposite of that.”
Kara Landau, accredited dietician, agrees that people need to look at the ingredients list and not just the marketing claim on the front of the packet. “There are substitutes that are made with healthy ingredients such as almond meal, quinoa and eggs, but you need to check the ingredients list,” says Landau. More mass-produced gluten-free substitutes use cheaper ingredients that are devoid of nutrients and, says Landau, “the science is starting to add up that all these additives are not good for your gut health”.
“There are substitutes that are made with healthy ingredients such as almond meal, quinoa and eggs, but you need to check the ingredients list.”
The most nutritious approach for those needing to eat gluten-free, according to the experts, is to seek out naturally gluten-free grains in favour of processed gluten-free substitutes. If you’re looking for inspiration Saxelby suggests avoiding western diets, which are bogged down in bread, and instead eating Asian style. “Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese foods are all based on rice and rice noodles, then you can add meat and vegetables into a stir fry. You won’t miss the bread so much if you’re replacing it with strong tastes,” says Saxelby.
It may be time to replace my daughter’s sandwiches with rice paper rolls, carefully check the ingredients when choosing gluten-free pizza base and save the gluten-free cakes and muffins for those special occasions.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/adaenn
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