I am often asked whether going gluten-free is a healthier choice. My answer, which may surprise you, is usually no. Now before you start booing and throwing loaves of grain-free artisan sourdough my way, let me explain (although if you do have any grain-free artisan sourdough available, I won’t say no to a loaf or two).
In growing numbers, the world is embracing a gluten-free lifestyle. Where the health food aisle in your local supermarket was once sparsely stocked, it’s now overflowing with choice. Most of these choices are assumed to be a healthier option. However, unless you cannot process the protein, there is no proven health benefit to going gluten-free. When studying nutritional food labels, it becomes apparent that gluten-free products contain fewer vitamins and fibre while having higher sugar and fat content. While I appreciate that the popularity of the gluten-free lifestyle has led to many companies expanding their product ranges, I am also concerned that the availability of these products has lulled us into a false sense of ‘healthfulness’.
To demonstrate this point, I headed to my local supermarket and compared a couple of common food products against their gluten-free alternatives. The first on my list was pasta.
I compared the San Remo Gluten-Free Thin Spaghetti to its gluten-containing counterpart. Per serve, the gluten-free version had 10 grams of protein, 2.4 grams of fat and 2.5 grams of sugar. The regular product had 15 grams of protein, 1.9 grams of fat and 0.7 grams of sugar per equivalent serve. Here, the regular product arguably comes out on top with 5 grams more protein, 0.5 grams less fat and 1.8 grams less sugar per serve.
Next, I ventured to the bread aisle. I compared a loaf of Country Life White Bread (a gluten-free option) against Tip Top Sunblest White Bread. Country Life White Bread contained 3.0 grams of protein, 3.7 grams of fat, 4.6 grams of sugar and 1.6 grams of fibre per 2 slices. Compared to Tip Top Sunblest White Bread which contained 5.0 grams of protein, 1.2 grams of fat, 1.4 grams of sugar and 1.6 grams of dietary fibre per 2 slices. Again, the gluten-free product didn’t fare as well as the regular option. Tip Top Sunblest White Bread had 2 grams more protein, 2.5 grams less fat, 3.4 grams less sugar and the same dietary fibre per serve.
I’m assuming you’re slightly curious as to why the gluten-free options in this demonstration haven’t sailed ahead in the health stakes. One of the factors contributing to this is the use of refined flours in gluten-free alternatives. These refined flours, including white rice flour, soya flour and corn flour, are missing the fibre and key nutrients that their whole grain counterparts retain. Refined grains are digested quickly and into simple sugars absorbed into your bloodstream. This can cause your blood sugar levels to jump and then crash. These swings in blood sugar sap your energy and leave you feeling moody.
On the other hand, quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, are full of fibre, helping temper blood sugars by slowing the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream after meals. One way to make a gluten-free lifestyle a truly healthful choice is to specifically choose gluten-free whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and whole corn. You can also choose packaged foods made with these ingredients. Another option is to try and avoid packaged goods as much as possible and view a gluten-free lifestyle as an opportunity to take back your kitchen and your health. Try zucchini noodles instead of fettuccini, a salad with a side of sweet potato instead of your usual tuna sandwich, or layer a lasagne with roast vegetables instead of pasta sheets.
Whether you have coeliac disease, or you’re simply interested in experimenting with a gluten-free diet, view it as an opportunity to change your lifestyle and not simply the packaged products you’re buying.