When a Gluten Free Diet Isn’t the Healthiest Option

My son is intolerant to gluten and dairy, so as his mum and provider, I know how difficult it is to live with. I know the consequences of when he accidentally eats something that may contain one of these foods and I remember the pain he suffered before his diagnosis.

There are more and more people being diagnosed with gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease and there are an equal number, if not more, who say they feel better for avoiding wheat and gluten in their diet. It’s not surprising then, that the free-from market has exploded, with new products appearing on the shelves all the time.

This is great news isn’t it?

Well you might say that, especially if you become chronically ill through eating food that is contaminated with even a tiny trace of gluten, but for those who think that the packaged products on the free from aisle represent a healthier option, think again.

Here are 5 reasons why:

1. More sugar – don’t presume that you can avoid eating an ordinary cake or muffin in favour of a gluten free one in the belief that it’s a healthier option. Gluten free muffins, or any sweet treats for that matter, contain way more sugar than their gluten containing counterparts.

Let’s look at a Tesco’s own blueberry muffin. It has 15.5g of sugar per muffin, compared with 25.7g of sugar in a Genius gluten free blueberry muffin. The Genius muffin is smaller as well.

2. More fat – another consequence of removing gluten is that you get more of the other ingredients, not only sugar, but fat too.

A gluten free bagel contains 5.9g fat, compared with an ordinary one that has just 1.2g. Do you buy the sandwich thins for packed lunches? The gluten free version contains 6g fat, whereas the wheat containing one has 1.1g.

3. More expensive – to live the gluten free lifestyle means that you have to spend more money on your shopping. Those of us who have no choice but to buy these products, curse the amount of money they cost us. Take the sandwich thins above, for example. You pay £2.20 for a pack of 4 of the gluten free ones, whereas you get 6 for £1.25, if you buy the ordinary ones. Those blueberries muffin from Tesco, cost £1.20 for 4, where Genius charge £2.00 for 2. Remember I said the Tesco ones are much bigger too.

4. Arsenic – yes you read that right. If you eat a lot of processed gluten free (and dairy free) food, you could be dramatically increasing your exposure to arsenic. This is because it is present in much higher levels in rice than in any other grain. The growing condition of rice, lead to uptake of arsenic from soil at up to ten times greater than other crops. This is partly due to the way that rice absorbs more water when growing.

Arsenic is a natural mineral in the earth’s crust (organic arsenic) and is also present in both soil and water due to pesticide use (inorganic). The inorganic form is a known carcinogen and both forms are present in rice products such as milk, cereal and pasta.

Although it is possible to reduce the amount of arsenic by rinsing the rice prior to boiling and then boiling in a high volume of water, such is the concern about the increased consumption of rice-containing products, the FSA advise not to give them to infants and young children (1-4.5 years).

You find rice flour in most, if not all, gluten free products.

5. Gluten may not be the problem – if you suffer from digestive problems and symptoms such as IBS, cutting out gluten-containing foods may help you feel better. It isn’t necessarily gluten that is making you ill though. Often foods containing gluten also have yeast, an overgrowth of which in the gut (Candida) can lead to illness. Read also, my post about FODMAPS, a group of foods that are known to be a factor in IBS. Many of these foods contain gluten too.

If you are gluten intolerant or coeliac, you have to unfortunately pay the price in terms of being ripped off by these manufacturers trying to make money on the back of a mass trend (though I should add that not all of them take this attitude). I buy very little of them, preferring instead to make my own. I worry that my son will grow up to be unhealthy otherwise, through no fault of his own.

My advice is that if you want to live a healthy lifestyle, then go for it and eat a gluten free, natural diet. Don’t just assume that you can swap one processed food diet for another and that will be enough. It won’t. In fact, you are probably doing more harm than good.

About Nicola Young

Freelance writer and copywriter

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