"Is there gluten in this?"
A question many of us are accustomed to hearing if not asking it ourselves. Especially in the part of the world I live (Colorado). Where allergy friendly markets and restaurants are becoming the majority.
Because 'going gluten-free' has helped a small yet growing part of the population, there seems to be the thought that gluten-free is healthy or even that it is a weight-loss program. I've noticed these misconceptions flooding through social media (and other media) and polluting the mind's of otherwise health conscious eaters.
First and foremost, gluten-free is NOT a weight-loss diet
In fact, I have known several people that started gaining weight after making the adjustment to gluten-free. As a way to transition going gluten-free, they began eating the replacement products such as baking flours, pancake mixes, breads, muffins, bagels, cereals, protein bars, and cookies. Simply substituting these products where they would have otherwise had something with gluten in it. Don't get me wrong, I think it's fabulous that these products exist for those that have a medical condition that prevent them from having gluten. These products can seem like a saving grace and comforting when they just want a sense of normalcy in their lives, especially for children. Though the problem with many (not all) of these products is that they can often contain starchy ingredients that add up to just as much carbohydrates and if not MORE than their counterparts. Ingredients such as cornstarch, rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca (aka cassava) flour as well as added hard-to-digest sugars, binders, and thickening agents. Holy smokes folks, there are 26 grams of carbohydrates in 1/4 cup of tapioca flour. To ease your brain, that's 104 grams of carbs in ONE cup. Wheat flour has significantly less, about 87 grams in one cup.
Many of the replacement flours contain very little nutrients. Using tapioca again as an example, there is virtually no protein or vitamins at all in the starch. I veer toward rice, chickpea, buckwheat, and oat flour for more nutritious gluten-free flours.
Wheat, one of the gluten-containing grains (the others are barley and rye), in which a relatively small part of the population cannot eat due to an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, at least contains 16 grams of protein in one cup. Wheat also contains several minerals and vitamins including zinc, copper, iron, B6, riboflavin, and folate.
Having little nutrients and a high carb count is one thing. Another negative factor to eating a lot of the gluten-free products is that many of the ingredients cause unpleasant side-effects such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea. This is especially true with the added binding agents like xanthan gum, sorghum, and guar gum. Both xanthan gum and guar gum for example have been used in the early days to as a laxative to treat constipation.
Not to mention the prices of products that have a 'gluten-free' label (especially certified gluten-free) are outrageous. Expect to pay at about 242% more for something that is gluten-free versus buying the alternative.
To be clear, I am talking about products that use substitute ingredients to make the item 'gluten-free' many products are naturally gluten-free
Take the Larabar for example. It has 'gluten-free' listed on the label though the ingredients are naturally gluten-free anyway (often dates and almonds with another fruit and nut). These labels are posted for various reasons but mainly so that people who are very sensitive know that they can safely eat them without concern of cross-contamination. I eat Larabars on a regular basis and would recommend them to both those that need to be gluten-free and those that can eat gluten.
Note that there are some out there that simply must live gluten-free lifestyle. Some of the conditions that may cause an individual to remove gluten from their diet include: food allergy, Celiac Disease (absolutely necessary to completely remove gluten), and Chron's Disease, Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Endometriosis, Type 1 Diabetes, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and/or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD), and Lupus. You'll notice many of those conditions are autoimmune disorders where the primary reason for removing gluten is too help reduce inflammation as well as improve digestion.
In addition, a reaction to gluten can manifest itself in several ways that are not gastrointestinal related such as eczema, headaches, acne, joint pain, behavior issues, and trouble breathing. That being said, if you do not need to be gluten-free then there really is no reason to buy a product on the sheer fact that it is gluten-free. I'll state again: gluten-free does not necessarily mean healthy. If you do buy gluten-containing grains, I recommend buying from local bakeries as they will normally not have preserves/additives and will be more nutrient-dense.
So, I don't propose that you never eat products that are 'gluten-free.' These products are increasingly available and contrary to popular belief can be super tasty. Though for someone who has lived gluten-free for over a decade, I suggest reducing your consumption of anything that comes from a package whether it has gluten in it or not, use your best judgement, and eat fresh, whole real foods- you know, the ole' "shop the perimeter" (hint: you'll actually save money this way)!
Instead of seeking out substitutions or replacements, I recommend adding in whole foods like additional vegetables, fruits, nuts, or herbs.
Non-product based naturally gluten-free alternatives:
Starchy veggies like carrots or sweet potatoes (side/fries)
Organic rice (I love basmati)
Plantains (side/thickening agent)
Roasted eggplant (side/noodles)
Spaghetti squash (side/noodles)
The list goes on!
Suggested naturally gluten-free flours and ingredients:
Arrowroot powder (in moderation)
Certified gluten-free oats/oat flour
Garbonzo bean flour
Nut flours/meals (almond is most common, use in moderation as they can cause digestive distress in large quantities)
Avoid or use with caution gluten-free flours and ingredients:
Pre-made flour mixes
Nut flours (they can be hard on your tummy)
Coconut flour (hello fiber! Just know that you may need use the loo if you use a lot of it)
Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible.
I believe the best alternative is to make your own meals, snacks, and treats with real unprocessed, un-packaged, whole foods.
Updated April 5, 2018