A gluten-free diet has many health benefits. However, care should be taken in any case to eat gluten-free and healthy because the designation gluten-free does not mean that such a diet must also be healthy at the same time. On the contrary, many products labeled gluten-free are anything but healthy. We provide tips on what you can look out for when buying gluten-free foods so that you can select truly healthy gluten-free foods.
Gluten – the gluten protein in cereals
Gluten is the gluten protein found in many grains – especially wheat, spelt, barley and rye. But also in some ancient grains, such as emmer, einkorn, and Kamut.
In combination with water, gluten holds the dough together and ensures that noodles, pastries, rolls, and bread can be made from it without falling apart or crumbling.
Gluten also has other favorable properties that are especially important for food technology. For example, it binds water gels and is an optimal carrier for flavorings. For this reason, it is also frequently used as an additive in the manufacture of finished products.
Rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, and teff, as well as the pseudocereals amaranth and quinoa, are gluten-free.
Avoiding gluten in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
People who have celiac disease react to gluten consumption with severe inflammatory processes in the mucous membrane of the small intestine. This means that an ordinary supply of nutrients is no longer possible for those affected.
Since celiac disease is a non-reversible autoimmune disease, those affected must avoid gluten-containing foods consistently throughout their lives.
Celiac disease-independent gluten sensitivity is another form of gluten intolerance. In contrast to celiac disease, this variant cannot be detected by a biopsy of the intestinal mucosa but at best by specific antibodies in the blood.
Sufferers of both gluten intolerances feel much better when gluten is consistently avoided.
Wheat is particularly problematic.
Wheat is considered the most problematic of the gluten-containing cereals. These are the genetically modified breeding forms of grain that have been in use for many years. They cause its gluten content to rise continuously, which has long since led to increased sensitivity to wheat among the population.
Increasing numbers of people who previously had no problems metabolizing the gluten protein are now reacting to the high amounts of gluten in wheat.
In addition to various digestive complaints that can relatively quickly indicate gluten sensitivity, symptoms also appear that are not initially associated with the consumption of gluten-containing foods.
Thus, headaches, migraine attacks, fatigue, concentration problems, sleep disorders, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and other symptoms can be directly related to an intolerance of wheat gluten. Unfortunately, doctors rarely consider this possibility.
However, gluten is not the only problem in wheat, as we had explained here:
Due to its excellent technological properties, gluten is used in numerous convenience products – in many cases without being easily recognizable on the ingredient list. For most people, this is not a problem at first.
However, the situation is entirely different for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity because they often react to even the most negligible amounts of gluten and therefore have to be particularly careful in their food choice when it comes to convenience products.
After all, who would suspect gluten in nut nougat cream, pudding, French fries, croquettes, sausages, fish sticks, instant soups, or spice mixtures?
Gluten is not always labeled.
Although gluten-containing ingredients are generally required to be labeled, the following applies: Gluten must only be labeled if the gluten content exceeds 20 mg per kilogram of food.
Also exempt from mandatory labeling are those ingredients derived initially from gluten-containing grains but which are (apparently) not harmful to people with celiac disease due to the small amount.
These include glucose syrup (wheat- or barley-based), maltodextrin (wheat-based), or distillates for spirits or other alcoholic beverages.
Gluten is also used as a release agent, binder, or thickener. Since these also contain only small amounts, they do not have to be listed, just like the gluten-containing flour dusted over the potatoes in ready meals (croquettes, French fries, rösti, etc.) to make them nice and brown and crispy.
The demand for gluten-free foods is growing.
It wasn’t that long ago that gluten-free foods could only be found in healthy and organic food stores. Unfortunately, the selection was also minimal, as only a few people were affected by gluten intolerance in the past.
However, these times have changed dramatically as the demand for gluten-free foods has increased immensely in recent years. More and more people are now sensitive to the gluten contained in grains or want to eat a gluten-free diet because of the health risks that gluten can pose.
So it’s not surprising that many rows of shelves in organic and health food stores have long been stocked with gluten-free foods. Bakeries keep gluten-free bread and rolls on hand – and supermarkets now also offer an ever-growing selection of gluten-free products.
However, when switching to a gluten-free diet, one vital aspect often remains unconsidered: The designation “gluten-free” says nothing about the food quality. Gluten-free foods are therefore not automatically healthy in every case. On the one hand, the respective list of ingredients will tell you whether the food is recommendable. In other cases, you have no choice but to contact the manufacturer or retailer directly.
Bake our gluten-free cornbread – it’s nice and fluffy on the inside and wonderfully crunchy on the outside.
Gluten-free does not always mean automatically healthy
Since gluten is logically absent from gluten-free foods, they also lack the typical gluten consistency that consumers have been accustomed to for many decades. So the food industry has to use all sorts of other ingredients to somehow compensate for the missing gluten. And since the conventional food industry is known for cutting corners, it uses incredibly low-quality ingredients to do so, such as
and many other questionable additives, all of which have no place in a healthy diet.
Example: Gluten-free muffins
The following example of a gluten-free muffin illustrates that it is worth taking a closer look before buying gluten-free convenience products. The muffins we selected are advertised as “fresh, gluten-free, yeast-free, and vegetarian.” At first, that sounds excellent. However, the ingredients list speaks a different language:
Sugar, potato starch, modified starch, vegetable fat, egg, water, sweet whey powder, E415, raising agents:E450 and sodium hydrogen carbonate, lactic acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, iodine, salt, flavoring, skim milk powder, calcium propionate.
Muffins of this dubious quality are pretty inexpensive, which is usually already an indication of the use of the cheapest raw materials. The ingredients are highly processed, some of them are produced synthetically, and not infrequently, genetic engineering is used in their production. One tries with the unhealthy tricks of the food industry – flavors, emulsifiers, fats, and sugar – to conjure up a reasonably tasty product, which is then still made durable with questionable preservatives.
RELATED: 8 grains for supercharging your diet
Healthy gluten-free food – the criteria
A healthy gluten-free food, on the other hand, should meet the same criteria as any other food, namely the following:
Eating gluten-free – without extract flour.
Healthy gluten-free food should, of course, be made without extract flours. The vast majority of gluten-free flours on the conventional market are extraction flours, usually rice or cornflour. Gluten-free wheat starch is also frequently used or other starchy flours free of fiber and protein.
Gluten is a protein mixture in the seeds of beverage varieties such as rye, wheat, or spelt. It is often also called gluten – due to the sticky properties in combination with water.
What happens with gluten intolerance?
People who suffer from gluten intolerance exhibit a permanent hypersensitivity to the gluten protein. The consumption of gluten-containing foods triggers an inflammation of the small intestine’s mucous membrane in those affected. This inflammation ensures that certain nutrients can no longer be adequately absorbed from the intestine. The intolerance often manifests itself through abdominal pain, flatulence, diarrhea – but complaints such as headaches or even depression can also occur. It is assumed that one in 100 people in Germany suffers from gluten intolerance (celiac disease).
Is gluten unhealthy?
Since unpleasant symptoms accompany intolerance, people with celiac disease must avoid gluten foods for the rest of their lives. For people without intolerance, however, gluten is not necessarily unhealthy. Instead, it depends on how the body reacts to the food and how much gluten is consumed. Gluten is difficult for the body to digest, so excessive consumption can cause inflammation and damage intestinal mucosa.
Gluten-free: also healthy for people without intolerance?
Experts say a gluten-free diet without celiac disease does not bring any health benefits. On the contrary – a complete renunciation can even be dangerous. Dietary fiber is vital for our intestinal activity and metabolism and should be a regular part of our diet. If gluten is completely avoided, this also includes healthy whole grain products rich in fiber. According to studies, abstaining from gluten is even associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Another drawback is the unhealthy ingredients found in many substitute products. These include sugar, starch, fat, or thickeners, for example.
Often gluten-free foods are expensive.
What’s more, the gluten-free diet can become expensive over time. The industry has recognized that there is a lot of profit from food trends and is taking advantage of this opportunity. Although not necessarily better in quality, gluten-free foods are usually significantly more expensive than gluten-containing products.
Gluten-free eating only necessary for celiac disease patients
Only those with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten and must eat gluten-free. Even the most negligible amounts of the grain component can otherwise lead to intestinal wall inflammation. If you suspect that you have celiac disease, you can have the diagnosis clarified by a blood test and a colonoscopy at your doctor’s office. On the one hand, for those affected, it is a blessing that gluten-free products are now readily available in supermarkets. On the other hand, they often have to deal with doubters in their environment since many view gluten-free nutrition as a mere trend.
Gluten-free products are not always healthier.
Eating gluten-free does not automatically mean that you are also eating healthily. Gluten protein is found in most types of grain, such as wheat, rye, and spelt – so if you want to avoid gluten, you have to eliminate a large number of healthy grain products from your diet. As a result, the food selection can be too one-sided, leading to deficiency symptoms in the long term.
Gluten-free substitute products are also often made with added sugar and increased fat content so that the consistency and taste are consistent even without gluten-containing grains. Unfortunately, gluten-free baked goods are usually higher in calories and lower in nutrients than conventional counterparts. Anyone who thinks they can lose weight with gluten-free food is therefore on the wrong track.
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