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Gluten Free Does Not Equal Healthy

May 10, 2012

gluten-free-freezer
(Photo by Andrew-Hyde)

Far from it. At best, I’d consider gluten free a starting point for further questions. I was eating out last month and asked for no bun with my burger. The server enthusiastically informed me that they have gluten free buns available. Great – I asked what was in there instead of gluten. She came back, reading a long lost of ingredients from a binder. I didn’t really need to know more than the first few. There was so much random crap in there I had zero interest.

Domino’s is offering gluten-free crust for goodness sake (unsafe for Celiacs though). Is it good that people are recognizing that gluten is a problem? Sure. But there are two big issues with this gluten free trend.  One, when you remove gluten from junk food, it’s still junk food! Regardless of what the marketers would like you to think, removing gluten doesn’t suddenly elevate the junk food to health food status. The HFCS, sugar, additives, preservatives, soy, coloring, flavoring, etc. remains. And two, the gluten is usually replaced with so many random ingredients, that I wonder what the point is.

I guess to answer my own question, it’s a matter of perspective. It seems that gluten intolerance or Celiac disease is looked upon as simply an allergy. Meaning, there is nothing wrong with gluten – there’s something wrong withy you for not being able to eat it. And when you look at it from that standpoint, all the antics make sense – since all the processed foods are fine for everyone except a number of people with a gluten allergy, let’s get rid of the gluten and voila, everyone can go back to eating processed junk and live happily ever after. Even better, I’m sure Big Pharma would love to create a pill you could pop along with your sugary breakfast cereal so that you can eat all the gluten you desire.

There are countless problems with this line of thinking, but two major ones are 1) gluten isn’t healthy for anyone, even if you don’t exhibit symptoms, and 2) it’s a complete disregard of what’s “healthy” or what you should be eating. It’s such narrow minded thinking – saying that it’s just the gluten that some people are sensitive to, rather than contemplating processed/junk food, grains, etc.

I still ask if a food is gluten free, but mostly because the majority of the time the answer is no, and the “food” is eliminated as a possibility. If the answer is yes, then typically more thought/information is required – especially if it’s a food that involves many ingredients.

What are your thoughts on gluten free foods?

Shared with Fight Back Fridays, and Real Food Wednesdays and Healthy Home Economist.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny May 10, 2012 at 9:37 AM

What, don’t you like your gluten-free pizza crusts to have 128970 ingredients? That’s practically homemade – who doesn’t stock twenty flours and as many starches and gums in their pantry?

Kidding aside, I think gluten free foods are fabulous… if we’re talking about GF foods that don’t have “GLUTEN FREE!” labels slapped on them. (Hahaha, I know that’s not what you meant. ;) The packaged GF foods… Meh. <– That is my feeling for them. They keep the true Celiacs feeling like they're not being deprived nor ignored of things that non-Celiacs can eat. They're definitely a step up because there's no gluten, though. I guess I am really on the fence about them. They're "better" but still not particularly good. If we're going to consume any grains at all – gluten-free grains or no – I still think they need to be properly prepared to eliminate or at least reduce all the other crud that comes with grains.)

I'm 100% in agreement with you about getting rid of the line of thinking you described – the idea that Celiac disease indicates human faults vs. the faults of some external factor (gluten). Hopefully more and more people will savvy up over time that a gluten free cookie is really no better for you than a… non-gluten-free cookie. Oftentimes, GF substitutes are just perpetuating peoples' bad eating habits by replacing a gluten-containing junk food with a GF junk food. A GF bad diet is still a bad diet. It may be marginally better than your average bad diet, but the "GF" label doesn't change TOO much.

(This all kind of reminds me of peanut butter, and its substitutes. If you can't have peanut butter… you can always have sunflower butter! (Omega-6 PUFA overload, whoo!) Or, even better: soynut butter! Yayy!)

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[email protected] May 10, 2012 at 7:23 PM

Yes, I should’ve asked “what do you think of gluten-free processed foods” :P

You mentioned peanut butter – I assume you’ve tried almond butter and coconut butter? both yum.

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Jenny May 15, 2012 at 8:53 AM

Oh I mentioned peanut butter – it being a legume and supposedly not being very good for you according to some pro-Paleo “health gurus”. And I mentioned those bad substitutes just as an example of how switching between these ‘butters’ is kind of like switching between bad gluten-containing foods to bad GF foods – as in, if you’re going to cut something bad for your diet… don’t go looking for a substitute that’s no better!

I do love my almond butter… As for coconut, I’m allergic! That always weirds people out. Apparently there’s a protein in it that some people have difficulty with. :(

Aaron May 10, 2012 at 6:32 PM

You nailed it in the third paragraph. We see so much gluten free junk food because people cannot, or will not, live without foods they’re used to. As you so aptly say ‘but if you don’t eat bread, what in the heck do you eat?’ You poor, deprived girl!

Exact same thing happened with the low fat craze. I remember vividly the first time a customer asked me if we had fat free half and half. I stood there dumbfounded. As I’m sure you’re aware, half of half and half is cream, which by definition is mostly fat. I didn’t doubt there was (and indeed there is) such a product, but it was a stark example of people demanding what they’re used to eating ‘in a healthy form’ … whatever flavor of the day ‘healthy’ is.

As for Big Pharma searching for a gluten blocking/neutralizing pill, they’re working on it. Heck, we already have products like Gluten-zyme and GlutenEase on the market, but they’re no where near as popular as the gluten free junk food itself.

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[email protected] May 10, 2012 at 7:04 PM

I figured there must be some sort of pill in the works – I kinda shuddered away from googling it though, a rare instance where ignorance really is bliss :P

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Judee @ Gluten Free A-Z May 11, 2012 at 7:45 AM

This is such a great post and so needed.
I have thought of writing a post on the very same subject.
Just because a food is gluten free, it does not mean it’s healthy.
In fact, many processed gluten free foods are nothing but white type flour and are actually do not promote health. Personally, I try to eat real unprocessed foods and most of them are naturally gluten free.

Some of my gluten free friends live on Gluten Free processed foods!
They have all the luxuries of the junk food era!

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[email protected] May 11, 2012 at 9:31 AM

Indeed, the best gluten free foods don’t need gluten free marketing labels. They’re unprocessed and naturally gluten free.

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Johnlyn May 11, 2012 at 7:45 AM

I’m with you! When people ask me if I’m gluten free I cringe. There’s sooooo much junk food out there that is gluten free.

Sometimes it’s easier just to say “yes, I try not to eat food with eat gluten in it.”

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[email protected] May 11, 2012 at 9:35 AM

It seems that gluten free meant more before all the large food manufacturers caught on. Considering all the other crap found in processed gluten free foods nowadays, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not gluten’s thrown into the mix – I wouldn’t touch it regardless.

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Jill Cruz May 11, 2012 at 8:20 AM

Hi! I found this post through the Food Renegade FBF. I agree with your points about how eliminating gluten from junk food doesn’t change the fact that it is junk food.

However, I’m wondering why you say gluten is not good for anyone. Is this true? I don’t know if I would go that far.

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[email protected] May 11, 2012 at 10:19 AM

Gluten is bad for everyone. Celiacs simply react more strongly and obviously than the rest of the population. For starters, gluten irritates the gut, causing inflammation, and can cause your body to create antibodies against it which can lead to autoimmune diseases. The majority of people who eat paleo/primal have not been diagnosed as Celiac. We avoid gluten because we either feel better without it, or because of the copious amounts of research on how damaging it is or both.

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Elizabeth May 13, 2012 at 9:26 AM

There’s a pretty good book about gluten (wheat specifically) being bad for everyone called “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis. It explains all the ways that gluten can travel through anyone’s system, and all the problems it can cause, not just the digestive ones.

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Elizabeth May 13, 2012 at 9:28 AM

I remember when I found out I had a gluten sensitivity, I went through the grocery store and bought all kinds of overpriced junk food just because it was labeled gluten free. I didn’t eat a lot of junk before, but suddenly, that gluten free label drew me like a moth to a flame. Cooler heads finally prevailed, and we’ve cut out all junk food now… the only thing with multiple ingredients in our kitchen is sriracha. :-) (yes, it has sugar… don’t judge me!) ;-)

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[email protected] May 13, 2012 at 11:00 AM

I’m not at all surprised by your initial reaction of buying up all the gluten free processed food – I think that’s pretty common, except that unfortunately most people continue along that path rather than coming around like you..

And if the only thing in your kitchen with multiple ingredients is sriracha, then that’s pretty awesome :)

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[email protected] May 14, 2012 at 4:58 PM

Do you have a post on why gluten would be bad for everyone? I’ve researched it a bit, but was of the mind that it was bad for those with celiac/intolerances, but not everyone else. I’d be interested to get your perspective.

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[email protected] May 14, 2012 at 7:36 PM

I will add that to my queue, sounds like it’d be a useful one to have :)

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Allegra June 23, 2012 at 12:51 PM

I am GF and people (who actually know what gluten is) ALWAYS look at me with pity and ask, “What do you eat then?”

I say…. “Everything else!!!”

Gluten free is an opportunity to eat more whole foods! And more veggies! I am so much healthier now.

But I hate going to grocery stores and seeing all the items marketed as “gluten free.” Don’t get me wrong, there are serious problems with gluten and wheat in general (I wrote an article on my blog about what happened to wheat and why it is so dangerous now) so on the one hand, gluten free is not just another fad. It can be a very healthy way to live. But on the other hand, because of marketing, I see the label “Gluten Free” everywhere… I think I saw it on a soda can before! And I was like, “Really?”

It’s sad because there are some people who think that gluten free = healthy. But gluten free packaged items are usually filled with a bunch of crap. GMOs, sugars, white flours, fat, soy, colorings, etc. In fact, when I see a label that says, gluten free, I usually turn it around to read the ingredients… just for a laugh. I agree with others on here who believe that we should stick to foods that don’t need a label. Thanks for this post!!

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Allegra June 23, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Another thing that saddens me is that some of the popular gluten free brands are so expensive! I’m sorry but, if you are using unhealthy, cheap ingredients in your food, you have no right to charge and arm and a leg! I won’t mention the brand that comes to mind… ugh!

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[email protected] June 24, 2012 at 10:55 AM

I know – it’s especially pathetic when they’re charging a premium just because they slap a gluten-free label on the product, and yet they’re actually using super cheap crap ingredients..

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