'Gluten-Free' On the Label Doesn't Mean 'Healthy'

People have been eating gluten for thousands of years with no ill effects

A growing food industry trend is products without gluten, which is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. It's used to give elasticity to dough, making products easier to manufacture.

Kathryn Deschenes, a Kansas State University master's student in food science, has been on a gluten-free diet since she was diagnosed with celiac disease, which runs in her family. The disease is a digestive disorder made worse by eating gluten.

"It can have funny symptoms like depression, acid reflux and it can stunt children's growth," Deschenes said.

Helps with some conditions

For the one percent of the population with celiac disease, giving up gluten products usually takes away those symptoms. Deschenes went gluten-free in high school and likes the recent gluten-free trend.

"It's been beneficial for the market," she said, noting that it means more companies are producing gluten-free products and labeling their products as such.

But are products labeled "gluten-free" healthier? Mark Haub, associate professor and interim head of Kansas State University's department of human nutrition, has a different take.

"Just because a product says it's gluten-free doesn't mean it's healthy," he said.

Gluten not harmful

For one thing, the gluten-free product probably contains as many calories as gluten options, Haub said, because a gram of sorghum, corn or rice flour appears to be metabolically similar to a gram of wheat flour. And consuming gluten, Haub says, isn't bad for the average person.

"People have been eating wheat, rye and barley for thousands of years, and there are people who live to be 100 who eat wheat products and don't seem to exhibit any types of health issues," he said.

Popular with celebrities

Gluten-free diets are now being adopted by people without celiac disease. Celebrities seem to favor it, crediting it with many qualities it may or may not have. Haub said as long as they do their research about the diet, he's fine with the trend.

"I'm totally supportive of people selecting and choosing lifestyle habits that best suit their needs and preferences, and this would fit that category," he said.

A gluten-free diet usually contains more fresh produce and that usually is a healthy improvement. If someone eats more varieties of vegetables and fruits and engages in portion control of other foods, then this type of gluten-free living may elicit health benefits, Haub said.

Deschenes cautions, though, that gluten-free is not necessarily a weight-loss program and can be a bad diet if you aren't aware of the things it lacks, such as a sufficient amount of fiber.

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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