Gluten-free has been all the rage lately (well, at least one of the recent fads) but is it really a healthier choice than a diet containing gluten? Obviously if you have Celiac disease the answer is yes, but what about for the rest of us? I often hear people claim that a food is healthy solely because it does not contain gluten. The food in question maybe healthy but it may not.
Gluten free does not automatically mean the food is low in sugar, salt, fat, calories, and is rich in fibre, minerals, and vitamins. Here we expose the possible less-than-healthy consequences of going gluten-free to help you decide if this is the diet for you.First off, absolutely, there are a people who should not consume gluten-containing products for health reasons; this debate is not for them, they have no choice! BUT the prevalence of gluten allergy and intolerance cannot possibly explain the booming sales of gluten-free products.
Approximately 35,000 people in Canada have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease and an additional 300,000 are thought to remain undiagnosed (1). Conversely, the Canadian Celiac Association estimates that 1 in 133 people are “affected” by the disease; however, admit that they do not have the actual statistics and this is an estimate. For a laugh and a rather facetious take on the issue, you can check out Brian Donovan’s rantings on Thought Catalog:
For the rest of us… are there actual health-related reasons to opt for gluten-free? Maclean’s magazine recently published an article about the concerns with the popularity of the gluten-free diet. You can check out the full article on-line, but here are a few of the highlights. We encourage you to consider the following before sending wheat by the wayside…
1. Gluten-Free Grab ($ money $).
The gluten-free market generated $90 million dollars in Canada and is continuing the grow at a predicted 10% per year. In the U.S., gluten-free is worth an astounding $4.2 billion (1). Not only are the number of gluten-free products increasing, but you pay a high premium for a gluten-free product. Turns out gluten-free products are on average 242% more expensive than the equivalent gluten-containing version, and up to 455% more expensive in some cases.
Furthermore, of the 56 products compared, none of the gluten-free versions were less expensive than the “regular” product (2). Another study reported that not only are gluten-free products more expensive, but also offer limited choices with only 41% of regular products being available in gluten-free form (3); although this is changing rapidly, thanks to consumer demand!
2. Incorrect Self-Diagnosis.
The catch with Celiac Disease is that symptomatically it it displays as generalized “gut problems”, which could be a variety of different diseases. In order, to actually diagnose Celiac Disease you need to undergo the gold standard diagnostic test of intestinal biopsy AND be consuming gluten-containing products regularly for at least a couple of months. With the mainstream villainizing of gluten, many people simply cut it out of their diet pre-diagnosis and then receive a falsely negative diagnosis for Celiac Disease.
There are also those who cite “non-Celiac Disease gluten intolerance” or “gluten sensitivity”; however, although this may be the case, the existence of such a disorder is still controversial with little scientific evidence (4,5). What is our biggest concern with self-diagnosis? It is an increasingly popular scapegoat, but if you falsely blame gluten for gut issues you might miss the *actual* culprit and the appropriate treatment.
3. A Worsening of Eating Habits.
Following a gluten-free diet is often assumed to mean preparing more meals at home, eliminating processed foods, and eating more vegetables and fruits. If this is the case, we would all likely benefit from gluten-free! Unfortunately, this is a misconception and medical professionals often report a worsening of diets and weight gain when people switch to gluten-free. The tendency is to rely on processed gluten-free foods and these are often low in vitamins, minerals and particularly fibre.
A common switch in gluten-free products is rice and tapioca flour to replace whole grains; but these GF flours are high on the glycemic index and relatively weak nutritionally (1). Case in point, check out the nutritional labels for Italpasta Gluten Free Pasta vs. their Whole Wheat Pasta. Can you guess which is the gluten-free option?
Even when portion size is standardized, the whole wheat option (pictured right) provides seven times the fibre of the GF pasta (pictured left), not to mention nearly four times more protein (and more minerals too).
People often think that they are following a gluten-free diet by omitting pasta and bread, but the reality is that gluten is in so many more products than most of us realize…
No Baloney’s advice? Unless you put a lot of time and effort into gluten-free diets, there’s a good chance they mean higher cost, less variety, and lower nutritional quality. We say keep the gluten if you can! Otherwise tread carefully by reading labels and avoiding heavily processed gluten-free products as much as possible. Don’t allow the gluten-free “health halo” to mask the sugar, calories, sodium, and low fibre content of foods!
- Gullie C. (2013) The dangers of going gluten-free. Maclean’s. September 10, 2013 retrieved September 30th from http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/09/10/gone-gluten-free/
- Stevens L & Rashid M. (2008) Gluten-free and regular foods: a cost comparison. Can J Deit Pract Res; 69(3):147-50.
- Singh J & Whelan K. (2011) Limited availability and higher cost of gluten-free foods. J Hum Nutr Diet; 24(5):479-86.
- Cadenhead K & Sweeny M (2013) Gluten elimination diets: Facts for patients on this food fad. BCMJ; 55(3):161.
- Hammond J (2013) Re: Gluten elimination diets. BCMJ 55(6):271-272.