Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Marilyn Linton

GET UPDATES FROM Marilyn Linton
 

Gluten-Free: The Help Versus the Hype

Posted: 08/26/2013 1:32 am

So many people I know have climbed aboard the gluten-free bandwagon, some because of gastro-intestinal issues (bloating, gas, so-called wheat belly) and others who have found that cutting back on gluten has helped them with skin and other health problems.

None of these people were diagnosed with celiac disease, most of the people I know who are now gluten-free are women. Some have switched to gluten-free because their naturopaths or nutritionists recommended they try it, some because eliminating gluten made them feel better, and a good number (like maybe two-thirds of them) because they equate gluten-free with weight loss.

"Free from" products have exploded in the marketplace and even local bakeries are offering gluten-free loaves made from potato or rice flours. A day doesn't go by where gluten-free isn't a lifestyle story in some newspaper or magazine.

Among the media, at least, there seems to be a gluten-free preoccupation -- a glut of stories on gluten-free as lifestyle choice. Add "evidence" from Hollywood stars (Rachel Weisz, Gwyneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus are among those who have claimed its powers) that gluten-free cures everything from gas to headaches and it's hard to figure out what's real in this emerging gluten-free world.

That's why I like these two recent takes on the issue: They separate the helpful from the hype.

Catherine Cross, who wrote last week in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) at , says that the gluten-free industry is healthy alright -- but that not all gluten-free foods are. "The market for gluten-free products is booming, and there have never been more food options for people who avoid the grain protein for health reasons," she wrote. But the descriptive "gluten-free" is also increasingly used by retailers trying to exploit the trend.

People with celiac disease buy these products for their health, of course, but many people who do not have gastro-intestinal/allergen/food sensitivity issues believe that going gluten-free will help them lose weight or belly fat. Dietitians, I am told, tell weight-loss clients that gluten-free does not mean automatic weight loss: gluten-free baking often uses more fat and sugar, and many gluten-free flours such as tapioca, potato and rice are actually higher on the glycemic index than wheat. It's not just carbs these dieters shun, but carbs containing gluten proteins like in wheat.

In fact "gluten-free" is Canada's top restaurant menu health claim, the CMAJ's Cross wrote, but that does not mean that all the so-called gluten-free menu foods you can find today are healthy. As an example, she mentions a pizza restaurant where the gluten-free crust has more calories, sugar and salt than the regular crust. That may be okay if gluten-free is your only interest, but not if overall health is your goal. Some gluten-free food items have more calories, more fat, more sodium and more sugar than regular non-gluten items.

If I were interested in a gluten-free diet for whatever reason, I would check out the Canadian Celiac Association. One of the points they make is that some foods that claim themselves as gluten-free actually may be manufactured in a facility where other foods with gluten are made, so there's cross-contamination issue to think about too. I found the best information on gluten-free, where, with one click, you access dozens of food brands that have been given a sort of "stamp of approval" by the association. All this goes to show that gluten-free is not as easy as just avoiding bread.

Here's an interesting thing, too: Over the past few weeks MedPage Today, a U.S. medical news service, asked readers if the attention to gluten was real or just a fad. In tabulating the over 5,000 responses found that gluten intolerance is a real issue, but that mainstream media attention to all things gluten-free is just a fad.

Among the comments: The genetic alteration of wheat crops may have affected people who "otherwise might not have been sensitive." (True enough!) And a comment from one gluten-sensitive diner who noted that awareness around the issue has helped her in that she no longer gets a "blank stare" from waiters when she asks about gluten-free.

My takeaway from all the above is that gluten-free awareness is great as are the increasing number of "free from" products and restaurant menu choices. But gluten-free diets for those not diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are mostly hype -- until proven not.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Soy Sauce

    <strong>Soy Sauce: </strong>Sad news for fans of Chinese cuisine: soy sauce has just a few ingredients, and one of them is wheat. That doesn't mean you can no longer enjoy a bit of soy sauce and wasabi with your sushi—though skip the tempura. Fortunately, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/07/commonly-mistaken-foods_n_1475582.html#s936725&title=Soy_Sauce_vs" target="_hplink">tamari is an excellent substitute</a> that tastes the same but doesn't have the gluten. <a href="http://bragg.com/products/la.html" target="_hplink">Bragg's Liquid Aminos</a> also do the job, and has less sodium. Just make sure to ask about any soy sauce that may be used in your food during cooking when you're eating out.

  • Thickener

    If a packaged food says "thickener" anywhere on the label, proceed with caution. In Canada, <a href="http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/allergen/index-eng.php" target="_hplink">food labels now have to indicate if a major allergen—including gluten or wheat—is present</a>, which is one more reason why reading labels is a fact of life now. But foods imported from other countries may not follow those rules, and prepared foods at restaurants won't be that clear either. Pay particular attention to sauces, soups, and salad dressings, where flour is often used to thicken.

  • Generic Tylenol

    April Peveteaux, a blogger and author of <em>Gluten Is My Bitch</em> was surprised to learn that the generic acetaminophen she was taking for stomach pain contained gluten. Other medications and supplements contain gluten, and that information is not always available on the packaging. The website <a href="http://www.glutenfreedrugs.com/" target="_hplink">Gluten Free Drugs</a> provides a list of safe medications.

  • Faux Meats

    If you're vegetarian and gluten free, get acquainted with beans, because a lot of the faux meats you may have relied on before are not going to be an option. Many faux meats contain vital wheat gluten as a key component, and considering gluten is right in the name of the ingredient, that's a no no. Tofu and tempeh are gluten free, assuming if nothing has been added to them, but seitan is not.

  • Starbucks Light Syrup

    Peveteaux's tale of the <a href="http://glutenismybitch.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/r-i-p-starbucks-skinny-vanilla-latte/" target="_hplink">skinny vanilla lattes from Starbucks</a> is a perfect example of how those who are gluten free have to do extra digging when eating outside of the home. When it became clear that she was eating gluten from an unknown source, she started digging and by contacting Starbucks directly she learned that the company uses gluten in its light drink syrups. An excuse to get the full-fat version?

  • Communion Wafers

    Yes, most communion wafers have gluten, though there are some companies making a gluten-free option. You could consider asking your diocese to provide the gluten-free variety if you take communion, though there is some controversy over <a href="http://www.celiac.com/articles/22980/1/Gluten-free-Communion-Wafers-Not-Holy-Says-Catholic-Diocese-in-Ohio/Page1.html" target="_hplink">whether or not they're allowed by the Catholic Church</a>.

  • Lipstick

    Turns out it's not true that the <a href="http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/lipstick.asp" target="_hplink">average woman eats six pounds of lipstick over her lifetime</a>, but you do put it on your mouth, so <a href="http://celiacdisease.about.com/od/faqs/f/Kissing.htm" target="_hplink">you'll want to make sure it's gluten free</a>—and not all of it is. Most cosmetic companies don't list this on the packaging, so you may have to do some digging here.

  • Spice Blends

    Straight spices like dried herbs should be fine for anyone avoiding gluten, but spice mixes can sometimes be a problem. Wheat flour or wheat starch is sometimes used as a carrier agent in pre-mixed spice blends; if you can't find out if a particular blend is safe, then it may be wisest to make your own combos. (On the plus side, this is fun!) Blogger Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl <a href="http://glutenfreegirl.com/2011/07/why-we-have-been-using-mccormick-gourmet-spices/" target="_hplink">recommends spices and blends from McCormick Gourmet</a> as gluten free, after working with the company and touring their facilities.

  • Ice cream

    Of course you'll have to <a href="http://celiacdisease.about.com/od/GlutenFreeSnacks/a/Gluten-Free-Ice-Cream.htm" target="_hplink">avoid ingredients like cookies and cookie dough in your ice cream</a>, but there can be less obvious sources of gluten in your frozen treats as well. Watch for flavourings like malt as well, and specialty flavours that would be made in smaller batches may have increased risk of cross contamination.

  • Licorice

    Did you ever stop to think about what those red licorice sticks are made of, other than the obvious sugar? Turns out the key ingredient is wheat, which makes them off limits on a gluten-free diet.

  • Malt Vinegar

    Malt vinegar is often made with barley, which is a gluten-containing grain, so this ingredient can be problematic. Distilled malt vinegar is generally considered safe because the distillation process removes any traces of gluten. Some people who are highly sensitive <a href="http://celiacdisease.about.com/od/Gluten-Free-Condiments/f/Gluten-Free-Vinegar.htm" target="_hplink">still report issues with vinegars made from gluten-containing grains</a>, so you may want to proceed with caution.

 

Follow Marilyn Linton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marilynlinton1

FOLLOW CANADA LIVING