If you've given up gluten, you could be doing your diet – and your body – a disservice. Depending on which gluten-free foods you swap for wheat, it's possible you're missing out on fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
A gluten-free diet is a necessity for people with celiac disease, an inherited disorder that causes the body's immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye and barley – is consumed. In celiac disease, even tiny amounts of gluten can damage the small intestine and interfere with nutrient absorption.
People with a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity also benefit by avoiding gluten. These individuals test negative for celiac disease but react poorly to gluten experiencing, such symptoms as bloating, abdominal pain, low energy and headaches.
Recently, though, gluten-free diets have caught on with people who aren't sensitive to the protein in the belief it's a healthier way to eat. According to a study from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, one-third of participants perceived foods labelled gluten-free to be healthier than the gluten-containing version. In truth, this often isn't the case.
Many gluten-free foods are made from white rice flour and starches (e.g. potato, tapioca and cornstarch). As a result, they're low in fibre and protein. Many gluten-free breads for example – even those labelled multigrain – have no more than one gram of fibre and two grams of protein per slice, one-third the fibre and half the protein found in many slices of 100 per cent whole wheat bread.
Refined gluten-free breads, cereals, pastas and baked goods also have a high glycemic index, meaning they cause blood sugar and insulin to spike, which can trigger hunger and overeating. Baked goods formulated to be gluten-free may also be higher in added sugars and/or fats to improve their texture and taste. Not great news if you're hoping to lose weight by going gluten-free. (Despite the claims found in the bestselling book Wheat Belly, there is no evidence that gluten, per se, causes obesity.)
Most gluten-free flours, breads, pasta products, breakfast cereals and baked goods are also much lower in vitamins and minerals than gluten-containing products. As a result, people who rely on gluten-free foods, may not be receiving optimum nutrition.
In Canada and the United States, there are no regulations to enrich gluten-free breads, muffins, cereals, pastas and flour mixes with nutrients. On the other hand, B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid as well as iron, must be added to white (wheat) flour to restore what's lost during processing and to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
The addition of vitamins and minerals to breakfast cereals is voluntary; however, the general industry practice is to fortify with B vitamins, iron, magnesium and zinc. If pasta is enriched, it must contain thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron.
When it comes to gluten-free foods, it's up to manufacturers to enrich products. According to research conducted by Shelley Case, a Regina-based registered dietitian and member of the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association, many gluten-free products are not enriched.
Her study revealed that among major brands of gluten-free products available in Canada and the U.S., only 20 per cent of breads, 16 per cent of cold cereals, 8 per cent of muffins, 4 per cent of pastas and 10 per cent of baking mixes were enriched.
That said, a handful of companies are doing a good job of turning out enriched gluten-free products. Kinnikinnick's breads and Weston Bakeries' All But Gluten breads are enriched with vitamins and minerals. So are De Boles multigrain pastas and Duinkerken Foods' muffin, pancake and pizza mixes.
In Canada and the United States, fortified foods help women of childbearing age meet daily requirements for iron and folic acid, a B vitamin that when consumed in the right amounts before and during pregnancy helps prevent certain birth defects, including spina bifida.
If you avoid gluten – regardless of your tolerance for it – the following strategies will help you consume more fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Choose whole grain. Gluten-free products made with brown rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and amaranth will have more fibre, protein and nutrients than those made with white rice flour. Look for breads, cereals, pastas and flour mixes with one or more whole grains listed at the top of the ingredient list. Add ground flaxseed, chia seeds and/or hemp hearts to foods to further boost your fibre intake.
Look for enriched. The ingredient list will also tell you if a product has been enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals. Compare brands of similar foods to see if nutrients such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron are listed.
Include whole foods. Don't rely on packaged gluten-free foods for carbohydrates and fibre. Gluten-free whole grains, such as brown and wild rice, roasted buckwheat groats (kasha), millet and teff are high in fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Serve them cooked as a side dish or use them to make salads, pilafs and hot cereals. Sweet potato and legumes (beans and lentils) also deliver low glycemic carbohydrate, fibre and protein along with plenty of disease-fighting nutrients.
Take a multivitamin. Women of childbearing age should take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement to get adequate folic acid and iron.