Whilst the cornerstones of a gluten-free diet – an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish make sense for everyone – unless you are coeliac or are gluten sensitive there is no need to cut gluten completely out of your diet or always substitute gluten-free for regular products.
Just because something is labeled ‘gluten–free’ doesn’t mean it is automatically healthy: it may contain significant levels of sugar or fat to compensate for the difference in taste or texture. Also, gluten-free breads and cereals may not be fortified in the same way as wheat based ones, which are generally enriched with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron. Gluten-free foods may be made from substitutes such as rice or tapioca that have minimal nutritional value so we would still advise taking the time to read the labels of gluten-free foods.
It is also important to check labels for levels of sodium, as salt is another ingredient that may be increased in gluten-free processed foods. If there is over-reliance on manufactured goods rather than natural foods, there is also a risk that this diet may be lacking in fibre: however the same might be said for other diets and this can easily be addressed by increasing intake of such things as vegetables, pulses and flax seeds.
If you are coeliac it is also worth bearing in mind that until testing improves to such an extent that manufacturers are able to certify a product as having absolutely no gluten, even minimal levels of gluten in an individual product cumulatively add up in the course of a day, Significant consumption of breads, pastas and cereals individually containing under the regulated level of gluten may when added together mean that someone with coeliac disease can eat enough gluten to cause intestinal damage (which varies form person to person but is may be around 10mg) despite carefully following a gluten-free diet. Until labelling improves it may be safer for coeliacs to moderate their use of gluten-free foods.
Should people who are not coeliac or gluten sensitive follow a gluten free diet for health reasons?
Research conducted by the respected Mayo Clinic suggests that coeliac disease is steeply on the increase in the general population, as are gluten sensitivities. As it seems that not just the increase in consumption of wheat, or even its hybridisation or the advances made in testing for coeliac disease may entirely explain why this is, it may make sense for anyone with the relevant genomes to moderate their intake of gluten containing foods.
Should I look further than checking for gluten?
Checking labels for other ‘nasties’ makes sense. That said, many gluten-free foods appear to be made with more sensitivity than general mass-produced foods given the need to avoid cross-contamination, and many manufacturers are heroic in their efforts to provide safe alternatives.
What does this mean for someone trying to avoid gluten?
It is important to consider the nutritional quality of the processed gluten-free foods that you buy. The best solution may be to eat as little processed food as possible, relying as heavily as possible on fresh produce, and using gluten-fee products by way of supplementation rather than making them the main event.
photograph by Yuma Tamai