If you’ve been to a grocery store at least once in the past year, you’ve probably noticed that there are many foods promoting that they are “Gluten-free.” There’s gluten-free popcorn, gluten-free pasta, even gluten-free Girl Scout Cookies. But what is gluten and is it really something that we shouldn’t be eating?
You’re probably thinking, what is gluten anyway? Good question! Gluten is a protein commonly found in grains like wheat and barley. It gives food it’s texture and holds it together. Think about it this way: ever wonder why pizza dough is stretchy? Gluten. Why is bread spongy in texture? Gluten.
For about 1.8 million Americans, eating gluten can lead to uncomfortable symptoms and even fatal cases if untreated. The reason behind this is because people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerances are not able to process gluten like other people can. Instead, their immune systems cause an abnormal response to gluten and can damage the lining of the small intestine.
So then why the gluten free craze? For starters, more attention has been drawn to people affected with Celiac disease, which is a good thing; they need to eat too! However, the result has turned into a new market for consumers to buy things that they might not need.
According to Mintel, a market research company, gluten-free products are estimated to produce more than 15 billion dollars in annual sales in 2016. Gluten-free products can also be more expensive. According to an article from The New York Times, a basket of groceries of non-gluten free products is around 33 dollars on average, compared to the 100 dollars worth of gluten-free products.
For consumers who have to be gluten-free, these products are helpful and offer a variety of foods to choose from. For the rest of the population, there is no need to buy such products or give in to the gluten-free diet.
Then why the gluten-free diet hype? The reason why these diets can be successful is because gluten can be found in so many foods, thus restricting what you can eat. However, something to keep in mind if you are partaking in this type of diet is that gluten-free does not mean more nutritious, low-calorie or low fat.
Remember when I mentioned that gluten holds food together? When foods don’t have gluten, manufacturers have to substitute it for something else. That something else is usually fat and sugar. Example: pretzels. A serving of regular pretzels has about 110 calories and one gram of fat. Gluten-free pretzels on the other hand are 140 calories and six grams of fat.
Gluten has no nutritional value, but there are many whole grains that contain gluten that do offer nutritional benefits, like whole grains! Studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of all carbohydrates in the diet come from whole grain products.
The verdict: if you have a medical reason (like Celiac disease), then don’t eat products that contain gluten. If you don’t have a medical reason, then go ahead-eat that whole grain bread!