Gluten-free products are a huge industry – Americans spent 4.2 billion dollars on gluten-free foods last year and this is expected to rise to over 6 billion by 20171. Going gluten-free has been made popular by books such as Wheat Belly and Grain Brain and celebrities such as Oprah, Dr. Oz and Gwenyth Paltrow have sung its praises. But why are some nutritionists and other health professionals against it and even calling going gluten-free dangerous? Is this diet right for everyone?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a hybrid of rye and wheat). These grains and their byproducts are used as ingredients in a variety of food and personal care products, even medications.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the even trace amounts of gluten can damage the surface of the small intestine. This leads to the body not being able to absorb all of the nutrients required for good health.
Celiac disease does not have a cure, but damage to the intestine can be minimized and symptoms and complications can be reduced by following a strict gluten-free diet. For more information, visit the Canadian Celiac Association.
What is gluten sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity (more accurately called non-celiac gluten sensitivity) is a newer area of research that seems to have more questions than answers. Some people report symptoms such as stomach pains, headaches and fatigue that seem to get better once they remove gluten from their diets. Because there is no test for gluten sensitivity, people often diagnose themselves. It is hard to determine if people feel better due to a “placebo effect” or because they make other diet changes such as increasing their intake of vegetables.
Note: if you suspect you may have celiac disease, get tested before you cut gluten out of your diet. Otherwise, the test won’t be accurate.
Is going gluten-free healthy for the rest of us?
If you don’t have celiac disease and you don’t think you are “gluten sensitive”, should you cut down on gluten?
The simple answer is, there is no reason to do so. If you want to try some gluten-free grains for variety or gluten-free products for fun, go for it. But keep the following points in mind:
1. Gluten-free does not always mean healthy
- Gluten-free products are sometimes made of refined flours and are heavily processed. Some gluten-free flours are also low in fibre and have not been enriched with vitamins such as folic acid like other flours.
- If you do decide to choose gluten-free products, search for products that are high in fibre by looking at the Nutrition Facts panel. A product that is high in fibre should provide at least 4 grams of fibre per serving.
- As a general rule, make sure the product has less than 10 grams of sugar per serving and contains ingredients you can pronounce!
- If you are following a gluten-free diet, it is a good idea to meet with a registered dietitian (RD) to be sure you are meeting your nutrient needs. Find a dietitian near you.
2. Gluten free can be more expensive
- On average, gluten-free products are 242% more expensive and up to 455% more expensive than “regular” products3. It is tough to get around this if you need to rely on these products, but try to make your own meals and snacks from whole foods as much as possible.
3. Go for a variety of grains
- Gluten-free does not mean grain free. Delicious and nutritious whole grains such as buckwheat, amaranth, corn, quinoa, rice and millet are all naturally gluten-free*. If you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, why not enjoy these along with spelt and kamut, whole wheat, rye and barley?
- *Note: People with celiac disease should read labels for possible sources of gluten and contact manufacturers to ensure the product was manufactured in a facility where it did not come in contact with gluten.
Try these tasty gluten-free recipes:
For further reading visit:
- FDA gluten-free labelling follows Canadian standards
- Canadian Celiac Association
- Stevens L, Rashid M. Gluten-free and regular foods: a cost comparison. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2008 Fall;69(3):147-50.