I just finished reading "The Truth About Gluten" published in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports. As expected, the article did contain some product reviews, which I always appreciate. However, to the article as a whole, my immediate, and yes curt, response is please stop reducing my gluten free diet to the fat content in a muffin. If this statement is confusing, let me elaborate by responding to each of the six "realities" that they address.
Reality One - Gluten Free Isn't More Nutritious (and May Be Less So)
This section compares gluten free muffins, bread, crackers and bagels to their wheat-based counterparts in terms of fat, sugar, salt and calories. Let me say that first, I am gluten free because I have to be. And whether the gluten free muffin contains more fat or sugar is irrelevant because it is the only one I can eat. Also, man, and gluten free man, does not live on muffins or bread or pasta alone. If we did, we would all be unhealthy, gluten free or not. Last time I looked, my turkey, pork, halibut, broccoli, quinoa, tofu, apples, grapes, oh my, had the same amount of sugar, salt and fat as the ones non-gluten free folks eat. So how is it my diet, and subsequently my relative health, gets reduced to the one item I consider a treat? Prior to being gluten free I did not look to muffins or even bread as a source of nutrition. I ate them because they were yummy not healthy.
Which brings me to my next point; a quote I just love to hate. "If you go completely gluten free without the guidance of a nutritionist, you can develop deficiencies pretty quickly. Many gluten free foods are not fortified with nutrients such as folic acid and iron; the products that contain wheat flour are." Really? I am relying on processed foods with fortified wheat flour to give me iron? How about leafy greens, shellfish, chicken, beef, sardines, salmon, lentils? I could go on. And folic acid can be found in a wide variety of vegetables, citrus fruits, papaya, red berries, avocado, beans, seeds and nuts. To sum up, a diet, gluten free or not, is only as healthy as it is diverse. Eat a wide variety of natural, wholesome foods and keep the fat and sugar laden muffin where it belongs. As a treat!
Reality Two - You'll Probably Increase Your Exposure to Arsenic
Apparently rice is the culprit and they have written several articles, beginning in 2012, about the dangerous levels of arsenic in rice and foods that contain rice. The connection to being gluten free is that rice flour is commonly used in gluten free foods. And while that is true, I have to reiterate, it is only true in the case of processed and packaged items. However, it does serve as a good reminder and impetus to try other grains as your side dish. Think millet, quinoa, polenta, etc.
Reality Three - You Might Gain Weight
According to the article, "More than a third of Americans surveyed think going gluten free will help them lose weight." And if people happen to lose weight on a gluten free diet it is because they are "cutting calories, eating less processed foods or sweets, or cutting portions of starchy foods like bread and pasta." Why yes, I think that sounds about right. However, I do understand the point they are trying to make and do agree that going gluten free is not necessarily a weight loss plan. There are still plenty of sugary, starchy, fatty foods to be consumed on a gluten free diet.
Reality Four - You'll Pay More
Again, this is a bit of a loaded and often used argument. Many foods in a home kitchen are naturally gluten free. I am talking about things like fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, peanut butter, most potato chips, etc. In this regard, eating gluten free does not cost more. However, if you purchase a lot of pre-made and pre-packaged products, the gluten free counterpart is often more expensive than its wheat-based cousin. This includes things like cookies, desserts, bread, crackers, pasta, etc. These items cost more because of ingredients, care and consideration. Gluten free foods often contain an assortment of grains and starches that are more expensive than wheat. In addition, in order to be considered gluten free, every ingredient used to make that food has to be traceably gluten free through every step of processing; from the farm to the mill to the manufacturing facility to packaging. Gluten free food producers cannot just source ingredients from the cheapest or easiest supplier. A lot more effort must go into ensuring a food labeled gluten free actually is and this costs money.
Reality Five - You Might Miss A Serious Health Condition
People choose to go gluten free for a wide variety of reasons. And I do agree that people should always be mindful, consult a doctor whenever there are health concerns, avoid self diagnosis, etc. This feels like common sense. However, and the article makes this point as well, a gluten free diet will not fix something that gluten isn't causing. Which means you won't get better and you will have to address your concerns with a medical professional. Going gluten free does not cause people to miss a serious health condition, not visiting the doctor does.
Reality Six - You Might Still Be Eating Gluten, Anyway
According to the article, "A recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 158 food products labeled gluten free over three years. It found about 5% - including some that were certified gluten free - didn't meet the FDA's limit of less than 20 PPM of gluten." Of everything in the article, I found this the most disturbing. I am a diligent label reader, I always look at ingredients and not just the claim, have a good food background and understanding, try to stay informed on products and labels, etc. But there is nothing I can do to control this. It is unfortunate and annoying that we as consumers have to be this mistrustful. However, it does not mean you should throw your hands up in the air and avoid going gluten free. It just means you have to work harder. Consumer Reports did highlight some good tips and suggestions in response to this problem such as calling the manufacturer.
So, although I found this article informative with some good nuggets of information, I do feel the authors missed the mark. I would have liked to see the list of companies that were not meeting the 20 PPM requirement, more product reviews, a more elaborate version of the "Gluten Free: The Common Sense Version" sidebar. I am a gluten free consumer. Help me make good product decisions.