Nutritional expert Amelia Freer on why you should be wary of those 'free-from' labels - it's not a fast track to a good diet
Gluten has really been dancing in the nutritional spotlight in recent times, along with its fellow evil sidekick sugar. But while the dangers of sugar have finally sunk in; gluten is still a controversial topic of heated debate. The explosion of gluten-free products into the UK market (worth an estimated £238 million) has certainly seduced many to fall under the spell of the gluten-free fad.
To be clear, a diet of gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free cereal and gluten-free muffins is not a recipe for health! There are many reasons people are embarking on gluten-free living, for example: coeliac disease, autoimmune disease, a desire for weight loss, improved digestive health, better mental health, enhanced energy or just a desire to feel better. While each of us will have a different journey with gluten, the gluten-free and 'free-from' aisle is definitely not the place to shop.
Why 'free-from' foods are misleading
1. A gluten-free label does not equate to healthy or nutritious. Gluten-free products are heavily processed and refined. Manufacturers use grains and starches that are naturally gluten-free such as corn, potatoes, rice and tapioca however, the refining process removes many nutrients as well as the protein (gluten), leaving a flour that converts to glucose as rapidly as any sugar. A cake is still a cake, gluten-free or not. Beer is still beer, gluten-free or not! Eating this way will not help us look like Gwyneth Paltrow.
2. Whenever a manufacturer removes a substance, they have to add in other things to improve stability, texture and shelf life. We fell for the “ fat free ” myth for many years, but now know that all fat free items have added sugar (which makes us fat). Same goes for gluten-free products – damaged and refined oils, sugars and preservatives are added. While it may be convenient to have a food substance that doesn’t go off for months, the consequences of eating these substances can last for years.
3. Gluten-free products still have traces of gluten in them. The trace amount may not be enough to trigger immediate damage or reaction, but if consumed in large quantities and on a regular basis, your gluten free efforts could still be impaired and you might not achieve the relief or results you are hoping for.
4. Avoiding gluten is not enough. While removing gluten can certainly be beneficial for many people, we also must focus on what needs to be INCLUDED to our diets to promote health. Food is information, so don’t neglect real food. Fresh, real, alive, natural produce has the potential to feed, nourish and heal our cells as well as reduce inflammation. Whole foods such as eggs, vegetables, fruits, meats, nuts and seeds are all naturally gluten-free. Focus more on what real, vibrant foods you add to your diet, not on what you avoid.
How to eat well and go gluten-free
If you want to give up gluten the healthy way, here are my top tips:
- Avoid anything processed, gluten-free or not.
- Eat foods that are naturally gluten-free such as fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat, fish, nuts, seeds.
- If it has a health claim on the packet, don’t eat it.
- Get in your kitchen and prepare your food from scratch.
- Take a probiotic supplement and eat fermented foods such as sauerkraut.
- Avoid supermarkets as much as possible.
- Be aware that cosmetics and household products may also contain gluten and could be hindering your results.
- Chew, chew, chew your food.
- Take steps to manage or reduce the stress in your life.
- Consider getting tested to see if your immune system reacts to gluten.
- Keep your meals vibrant and varied.
- Familiarise yourself with all of the sources of gluten (more than just wheat!) and its hiding places.