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Is Gluten-Free Really Gluten-Free?

By Nell Stephenson, B.S.
May 23, 2020
Is Gluten-Free Really Gluten-Free? image

Do you follow a gluten-free diet?

If so, you’re not alone. Over 3.1 million people across the United States follow a gluten-free diet and 72 percent of them are classified as “PWAGs”—people without Celiac disease avoiding gluten. (1) But what does that gluten-free diet look like, and just how healthy is it?

One way to approach a gluten-free diet would be to simply eat in a manner which is based primarily on abundant, local, in-season produce (mostly veggies, with some fruit here and there), ample sources of naturally occurring fats, and moderate portions of mindfully sourced proteins.

In other words, if you could pick it and eat it, gather it and eat it, or catch it and eat it, it’s not going to have gluten in it. (Yes, you can technically pick wheat, but without a whole lot of processing, you can’t eat it.)

Another way to stay gluten free, of course, is to work backward from what might be considered a more convenient way to eat—the typical American diet. Then, by removing manufactured goods that contain gluten and replacing them with manufactured goods which do not, you’d have a “convenient” and gluten-free diet. Or would you?

    In a recent study in which the FDA looked at over 5,000 foods that were labeled “gluten-free,” 32 percent had significant amounts of gluten in them.

    Unfortunately, simply trying to avoid gluten by eating foods labeled as gluten-free is not necessarily the healthiest way to go. Nor is it completely reliable. First, gluten-free replicas of things like breads, pretzels, and pastas, often contain more saturated fats, sugar, and salt than their original gluten-containing counterparts. They also, often, contain lower amounts of fiber and protein. (2)

    Next, and perhaps more alarming, in a recent study in which the FDA looked at over 5,000 foods that were labeled “gluten-free,” 32 percent had significant amounts of gluten in them, with pizza and pasta being the worst offenders. (3) Not only is this extremely harmful for the consumer with Celiac disease who’s chosen a product labeled as gluten-free, it’s problematic for the over 90 percent of Americans who have an inflammatory-related health concern they’re trying to address.

    It becomes clear, then, that a diet consisting of packaged items labeled as gluten-free is far from the answer to anyone’s health issues; nor is it an effective way to address one's high-performance lifestyle goals.

    It’s worth asking where this confusion stems from. It seems the simple answer, as is so often the case, comes down to the bottom dollar.

    The global gluten-free food market was valued at $4.48 billion in 2018, and is predicted to reach $6.47 Billion in 2023. (4) You can bet that most gluten-free foods in this category are not the foods that grow, swim, and run locally in the area in which people live. In other words, there’s not a lot of profit to be made in broccoli, berries, and local farm-free eggs in their natural state.

    But pick them, dry them, powder them, add refined sugars and salts, place them in a package that will be portable and shelf stable for a year and... voila! You’ve got yourself the beginnings of a potentially profitable commodity.

    The fact that the FDA’s gluten-free seal of approval has been shown to be erroneous over a third of the time should send a clear message to consumers that they can’t always trust a label. So, what’s a well-intentioned consumer to do, in order to sift through all the confusion of labeling? The easiest answer is to minimize, or even eliminate, the amount of packaged food items one consumes. If it doesn’t have a label, it’s not going to have gluten—have you ever seen a nutrition label on a bunch of kale, a head of cauliflower, or an apple?

    Does this mean you should never eat any of these packaged items again?

    Not at all. If you don’t have Celiac disease, but believe that gluten is always a bad choice, eating the occasional item labeled gluten-free may not be high risk. It could also be seen as an enjoyable treat from time to time. Got a birthday coming up? Go ahead, share a lovely flourless chocolate torte at your local favorite restaurant, without consequence.

    But simply replacing all the gluten-containing goods in your home, office, and in your day-to-day life with gluten-free versions is not likely to create a foundation for optimal health. Doing so would still result in a highly refined, low-nutrient-density eating plan which could keep inflammation levels high.

    Once again, focusing on real, uncompromising foods for the bulk of your diet is the answer.

    References

    1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/01/17/the-number-of-americans-going-gluten-free-
    2. https://www.thedailymeal.com/healthy-eating/gluten-free-foods-expensive-less-healthy-study/012218
    3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30920417
    4. https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/gluten-free-food-market-2018-2023share-scope-stake-trends-industry-size-sales-and-revenue-2019-10-22

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