Yes? No? … who KNOWS anymore!
“Gluten free” doesn’t seem to be all that it’s cracked up to be.
As I peruse the aisles of the organic natural-foods store – well, pretty much any food store at this point, wherever you go – I think the question we should ask ourselves, is “gluten free” really healthy?
“Gluten Free” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Healthier”
Given the sort of “gluten free” foods you will find in your average store these days, I’m going to say NO.
Unless you suffer Celiac disease or are otherwise gluten-intolerant (non-celiac gluten sensitivity) in which case avoidance of foods with gluten is critical to your health, the reality is that the current “gluten-free” dietary craze is largely a marketing gimmick that has many people believing that gluten is something bad that needs to be avoided at all costs.
The reality is, for most people gluten is a nutritional protein that our bodies actually need. Gluten helps make bread rise and keep it’s shape, makes it chewy and delicious, and gives it absorbency.
Now, too much of any one thing – even a good thing – may not be entirely good for you. Celiac or gluten intolerance aside, there may be good reason for you to cut down on your gluten intake with some careful food choices.
What IS Gluten?
Gluten is actually found only in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. As a result, foods which contain as an ingredient wheat, barley or rye in some form will also contain some measure of gluten.
For those super-sensitive to gluten, exposure can also come through cross-contact, generally through cross-contact with utensils used for making or serving foods containing gluten, or a shared cooking or food storage environment.
As part of the marketing hype, many foods are now touted as being “gluten free” (and sold at higher prices) NEVER HAD GLUTEN IN THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE.
I mean – gluten-free oranges? Who are they trying to kid?
On the other hand, many of the processed foods you will find in your supermarket do include gluten-containing ingredients. Most breads of course are made from wheat or contain wheat. Wheat is what makes bread rise and become fluffy.
Wheat gluten is also used as a thickener for soups and broths, gravies and sauces (including ketchup), or marinades. Since it enhances flavor, it is frequently used as an ingredient in bouillon, spice blends, coffees, dairy products, vinegars, and liquors. As a stabilizer it may be found in the gum used to seal envelopes. As a protein it is often used for making meat substitutes, especially those used in vegan and vegetarian diets.
A Bigger Problem – Overly Processed Foods
Before you panic and swear off all foods forever however, remember that gluten content is really only a problem for those relatively few people whose bodies can’t process or digest it, or who have an allergy to it.
The much bigger problem lies in the modern processing of our foods, and this is a HUGE problem with the whole “gluten free” dietary hype.
The simple truth is that the vast majority of the “healthy, gluten-free” foods you will find in your local grocery and even in natural food stores, are quite often WAY over-processed with numerous amounts of processed sugars, oils, MSG and an array of “natural flavoring and anti-caking agents” that I would not call part of a truly healthy diet.
After all, if a food can sit on a store shelf for days or weeks and not rot, you have to question whether it contains any real nutritional value.
Gluten-Free, AND Healthy
Now, having said all of that – I am going to say YES to gluten-free also!
For truly HEALTHY “gluten-free” diet, you need to keep your focus on using simple, unprocessed (or minimally-processed) non-wheat ingredients and foods such as plain and simple brown rice, oatmeal (not the quick-cook stuff), quinoa, millet, beans, buckwheat, amaranth, sorghum, tapioca, almond, cassava and the other numerous nut and tuber flours.
Some of these very simple, wholesome grains and beans can also be made into pastas which usually have very few other ingredients in them, and which can be considered very good for you as well.
That’s what I mean by “gluten free”. Simple, one-ingredient foods that do not use gluten-containing wheat, barley or rye.
Using these non-wheat products as flours enables you to make bread and other home-baked goodies that are both minimally processed AND gluten-free!
Yes, there is some additional effort involved and yes, you will have to cook, but the benefits to you health and your family’s health are worth it.
Now, unlike most store-bought baked goods and other prepared foods you will have to become an informed shopper and label-reader. Caveat emptor – “buyer beware” is the operative phrase here.
There are of course some reputable food companies today who do a great job creating and producing minimally-processed gluten-free products with simple wholesome ingredients and few additives, but they are few and far between in most grocery aisles.
So how do you know what to buy? What is gluten free? What is the least processed?
For the most part, don’t assume any store-bought food is good until you observe the ingredients.
When it comes to the list of ingredients, “less is more” for good health. The fewer the ingredients in a food (all or most of which you can pronounce and are real, natural foods) is what you want to see.
KISS – Keep It Short & Simple
Here is one very simple example of a commercially-made Paleo tortilla that I love. You’ll see the ingredient list is very short and sweet:
Savor Tooth Paleo Pumpkin Seed Tortillas – Ingredients: Organic pumpkin seed flour, Organic tapioca flour,Organic coconut flour, Xanthan Gum, and Himalayan pink salt.
That’s it! Five ingredients, simple, healthy, and without a whole lot of processing. This is what you are looking for.
(For those who maybe don’t know, Xanthan Gum is a commonly used thickening agent and food stabilizer produced from simple sugars through a fermentation process, and gets its name from the species of fermentation bacteria used – Xanthomonas campestris.)
Gluten and Inflammatory Disease
Now while gluten can be safely consumed by most people and is in fact an essential protein, it can also promote inflammation in the body – something that is true of ALL highly processed foods.
So, if you are prone to internal inflammation (which Dr. James Bowman at the Naturopathic & European Medicine Centre in Stevens Point can test you for) you will find that a gluten-free or reduced-gluten diet will probably be a healthier choice for you, and will help your body remain in a less inflammatory state.
Being gluten-free in the best sense also means sticking with clean, organically-grown, grass-fed, sustainable locally-sourced meats, vegetables and fruits – with a very short list of occasional grains and beans.
Even a gluten-free simple grain, nut and bean flour or dried product diet should not be three times a day, every day of the week. If it is, then I can guarantee you are not getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet!
Variety is an essential part of life, and you need to seek variety in your diet as well.
Not only will you be missing out on a lot of important nutrients otherwise (and a lot of tasty recipes) but a bland and boring diet of the same foods day in and day out won’t be a lifestyle you will be able to sustain – and consistency (not boring) is key!
I hope this information is helpful in your journey to better health and enjoyment of life. May God give you wisdom in your search for the beauty in simplicity!
Kelly is the Naturopathic & European Medicine Centre’s media liason. A strong natural health advocate for the last 19 years, in addition to gardening and experimenting with healthy recipes and natural products she is a freelance hair stylist and makeup artist. Along with assisting her husband’s real estate business she is currently focused on the challenges and joys of homeschooling their young son Silas.