The healthy shopper II
What does ‘gluten free’ mean for me?
By Bob Gaydos
There is an aisle of food products at the ShopRite supermarket in Chester, N.Y., that reaches from one side of the store way over to the other side. In fact, it seems to go on forever. Every item on the shelves is labeled “gluten-free.” Similar sections, some even larger, have sprung up in supermarkets across the country, causing more than one shopper to wonder, “What the heck is gluten?”
Gluten, which comes from the Latin word for ”glue,” is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt and other grains. It is used extensively in baking to help dough rise and to give the final product -- bread, cake, muffins, etc. -- shape and chewiness. It is also used in many other food products, medications and vitamin supplements to provide texture and as a stabilizing or binding agent. It can be found in products ranging from imitation meats (Tofurkey) to pasta, beer, pizza, cookies, ice cream and ketchup. It is a staple of most processed foods.
Until the past couple of years, the phrase “gluten-free’ was familiar (and important) primarily only to the roughly 1 percent of Americans estimated to have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten. It can cause inflammation in the small intestine, leading to stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea and even weight loss. Over time, undiagnosed, it can deprive organs of important nutrients. Celiac disease has no cure, but it can be controlled with a gluten-free diet.
The recent boom in gluten-free products at the supermarket, however, also has a lot to do with concerns about gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy (separate conditions), combined with a desire among more health-conscious consumers to reduce their calorie intake. Products with gluten have been linked to weight gain. This consciousness has been fed by social media sites on the Internet which have given rise to a growing societal interest in eating more healthfully and a concern over genetically modified foods, including wheat. (GMOs will be covered in a later article.)
Of course, there has been more aggressive marketing by food companies responding to consumer demand. And it’s the marketing that can cause confusion among shoppers. While the Food and Drug Administration does not require gluten to be listed on labels, last year it adopted standards under which companies may voluntarily list their product as “gluten-free.” Lesser-known food companies that were already producing gluten-free foods were quick to respond; larger companies, noting consumer interest (and purchases) began to follow suit. More seem to be doing so every day.
Since a primary goal of this series is to help eliminate shopper confusion, it should be known at the outset that many foods are gluten-free in their natural form, including meats, poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, rice and beans. Labeling them ‘’gluten free’’ is stating the obvious. There is a slight risk of cross-contamination with beans, since some farmers grow them on the same fields or adjacent to crops that contain gluten. Persons who know they are allergic or sensitive to gluten (confirm this with your doctor), might want to look for products voluntarily labeled gluten-free and be alert for another voluntary statement, “may contain wheat.”
But labels, even though they may be truthful, can be deceiving. Whether the intent of avoiding gluten is to avoid symptoms of celiac disease or to lose weight, it’s important for the savvy shopper to be aware of everything that is in the product that’s labeled “gluten-free.” A lot of sodium may be added for “taste,’’ or some unhealthful combination of the sugars listed in the first article in this series may be lurking. There may be chemical additives. It’s also wise to be aware of what is being used instead of gluten to give the product the desired texture.
It doesn’t take a long time to read food labels once you’ve made it a practice. Knowing what you’re looking for is key. Beyond that, it’s still a matter of taste and texture. Rice, quinoa and buckwheat are among the foods gaining in popularity with the gluten-free consumer.
Not just gluten
If you want to read more about wheat and it’s possible effect on weight and health in general, Dr. William Davis has written a best-selling book entitled “Wheat Belly.” It’s available at the usual places On Line.
Next: What exactly is “natural”?