Are gluten free foods healthier?

Gluten free cake mix Is gluten free always healthy? (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

While browsing through Amazon Fresh the other day, I chanced upon their range of gluten-free pasta. “How neat,” I thought. An admitted pasta fiend, I feel terribly guilty every time I eat my favourite form of carbs. “I know that it’s too much refined flour at one go,” I’d plead with my tummy each time.¬†Consumed by “gluten-is-bad” thoughts, I’d always feel terrible after scarfing down pasta. “Hight time I made that switch. It’s gluten-free so it must be healthier,” I said to myself as I added a box of millet (ragi) penne pasta to my cart.

I cooked it with feta and cherry tomato style √† la internet. I thought that I cracked the code to guilt-free pasta eating until I took a forkful of the stuff to my mouth. Long story short — the entire box ended up in the garbage. It tasted like wet cardboard.

A tough lesson indeed. Pasta is pasta, gluten, carbs and all!

It also made me introspect; why did I think gluten-free was any better? What was the source of my gluten guilt? It’s mainly fed by the internet and celeb-inspired food culture that keep pushing the gluten-free narrative down our throat for weight loss and whatnot. Athletes also go gluten-free for supposed improvement in performance.

So why is gluten the bad guy?


What is gluten?

Gluten is a “storage protein” of wheat and grass-related grains. (Plants accumulate starch, fats and proteins for later stages of their development, especially during flowering and germination.)

Gluten gives dough its stretchy, gluey nature (gluten literally means glue in Latin) and bread its springy texture. It’s a complex mixture of hundreds of related but distinct proteins, mainly glutenin and prolamins.

Although mostly associated with wheat, gluten is also found in oats, barley and rye. Some of our everyday foods bread, roti, cakes, cereal and even beer, soy sauce, ice cream and ketchup have gluten from the stabilising agents.

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Why is gluten avoided?

People with Celiac Disease typically avoid eating foods that contain gluten because they are sensitive to it. The disease causes inflammation in the intestines and other parts of the body.

In people with celiac disease, gluten damages the villi — the finger-like structures inside the small intestines that absorb nutrients from food. To curb the inflammation, they have to actively avoid consuming gluten.

Other diseases like schizophrenia, atopy, fibromyalgia and even endometriosis seem to benefit from gluten exclusion.

But people with celiac disease only form 1% of the population. Despite that, the sale and consumption of gluten-free foods have skyrocketed in recent times.

The rapid rise is driven by media coverage around gluten, aggressive marketing and your favourite celebrities endorsing gluten-free foods. But a compelling body of studies also says that going gluten-free without celiac disease may have some drawbacks.

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A gluten-free diet may cause nutritional deficiencies

Often low in fibre, a gluten-free diet can cause constipation. Gluten-free processed grain products may also lack iron, zinc and potassium. The diet may also cause a deficiency of B vitamins and other trace minerals.

Gluten-free diet may be unhealthy

In general, the gluten-free diet is shown to be an unhealthier diet choice than a regular diet, unless you have celiac disease.

Some food components that are bad for health may be higher in gluten-free foods, say studies. It could increase dietary exposure to arsenic and mercury, raising risk of cancer and other deadly diseases.

Gluten-free meals may also have excessive hydrogenated and saturated fatty acids and a higher glycemic index.

As for gluten-free desserts, Lisa Mallonee, a dietician with the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, tells ScienceDaily: “Gluten-free desserts are not healthier than ‘normal’ desserts. In fact, gluten substitutes may actually increase calorie content and contribute to weight gain. With that being said, gluten-free food is great to consume by those diagnosed with celiac disease or who are gluten-intolerant — but gluten-free desserts should be eaten in moderation and with a balanced diet.”

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Gluten-free foods are expensive!

A 2015 study found that gluten-free foods, especially bread and bakery products, were on an average 27% more expensive. Gluten-free cereals were found to be 205% more expensive! “For healthy consumers, replacing gluten-containing products with GF foods is aligned with substantial cost differences but GF foods do not provide additional health benefits from a nutritional perspective,” says the study.

Robert Shmerling, MD, writes in Harvard Health: “There is no compelling evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve health or prevent disease if you don’t have celiac disease and can eat gluten without trouble. Of course, future research could change this. We may someday learn that at least some people without celiac disease or symptoms of intestinal disease are better off avoiding gluten.”

In conclusion, you are better off eating gluten if you don’t have celiac disease.