Do many gluten-free products have an undeserved health halo?

Gluten has become an unwelcome  guest in many kitchens.  Somehow, for a growing segment of the population, banishing gluten from the menu has become synonymous with healthy eating. But many of these people are not gluten intolerant. They have been led to believe that gluten is a major culprit in promoting a long list of ills, potential disease and weight gain.

Yet science doesn’t back up gluten’s sullied reputation. True, there is recognition that  the incidence of gluten intolerance  – both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance  – is significantly higher than what was previously thought.   Tracking down the origins of gluten intolerance and diagnosing or ruling out celiac disease is critical to long term good health.

So why do some people feel better or experience less bloating and other similar symptoms when they first shun gluten even if they don’t have a  physical intolerance to it?

Picture this: At dinner in a restaurant, instead of devouring the contents of the bread basket and having a portion of pasta that would feed a family of three of four in Italy, to avoid gluten, you have some simple grilled fish and steamed vegetables. It’s not hard to figure out which meal might leave you feeling better.

Cutting out gluten also used to mean no burgers, doughnuts, commercial muffins and a range of regular snack foods.  While it is becoming easier now to find the muffins and snack foods,  you still won’t find them sitting in front of you at a party begging to be eaten. So it’s no wonder that some people experience a better sense of well-being and initially find waist management an easier task when they eliminate the compound from their diet.

But  considering the incidence of gluten intolerance, these numbers don’t add up to what you find when  you look at the gluten-free marketplace. A check of supermarket shelves, chock full of new gluten-free products, shows just how popular this eating style has become.  It’s estimated that the global market for these foods will reach  a whopping  $6.2 billion by 2018.

It’s wonderful to see an increasing range of nutritious gluten-free options for those who cannot tolerate gluten. But if you check out the assortment of offerings, the number of gluten-free junk foods are rising at an unbelievable pace.

It brings back the memories of when fat was public enemy number one.  Fat-free cookies and snack foods became a staple for many. But as the scales tipped in the wrong direction and many fat-free food lovers packed on the pounds, consumers smartened up and shunned these fat-free selections.

Contrary to popular opinion, just cutting gluten out of your diet doesn’t make you a healthy eater.  A lot of those gluten-free products on the market – items such as cookies, cakes and the like – actually look a lot like junk food and offer very little nutrition.

And simply avoiding gluten can leave you short on a variety of nutrients including fibre, B vitamins and iron. Opting for gluten-free grains such as amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat in healthy preparations as a replacement for selections like couscous and barley, on the other hand, is smart gluten-free eating.  There are also lots of new great products, such as crackers and cereals, that are adding some much needed variety and convenience.  Label reading, beyond the gluten-free claim, is key.

Keep in mind when you’re contemplating whether to cut gluten out of your diet, if you’re doing it due to any complaints at all regarding your health, get tested for celiac disease before doing so. Consuming small amounts of gluten, over the long run, in those with this autoimmune disease is linked to an increased risk of ills including certain cancers.

As well, consider this when you hear all the gluten naysayers spouting their anti-gluten ideology:   two dietary patterns linked  good health, the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet, are both chock full of gluten.

In the mean time, if you’re looking for gluten-free diet information, check out Canada’s foremost celiac  expert dietitian Shelley Case’s website and her book, Gluten Free Diet, A Comprehensive Resource Guide.

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Categories: Food Trends

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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