This is part 3 of an overly-long gluten discussion that started in the previous post. We're exploring the nature of gluten, why some people avoid it, and the nutritional properties of gluten-free products on the market. Gluten-free goods on the Market
For those who suffer from Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, the loss of familiar foods like bread and cereal can be a little depressing. Over the last few years, as food manufacturers became aware of the specialty market for those avoiding gluten, a multitude of gluten-free baked goods became available.
Gluten-free baked goods are great, because they can bring a lot of joy to people who thought they were never going to get to eat a dang piece of toast again without suffering serious side effects! But are they somehow healthier? In a word: no. A cookie is still a cookie, whether it’s made with wheat flour or sorghum. That means it’s still a source of added sugar, saturated fat, and excess calories. As with all foods, gluten-free baked goods should be eaten in moderation.
The downside to gluten-free baked goods is that they can have an incredibly high glycemic index. Eating large amounts of high glycemic index foods can wreak havoc on anybody’s blood sugar, but it’s especially a concern for those with diabetes (which means it’s a concern for a full third of the US population). Foods with a high glycemic index do not make for a very satisfying snack; they won’t keep you full for very long due to fast gastric emptying.
Am I saying that all gluten-free baked goods have a high glycemic index? No. While there’s no information on the glycemic index on a nutrition information panel, you can get an idea of how starchy a food is by looking closely at the label.
First, check out that ingredient list. It’s in order of decreasing quantity, so if something is listed in the first couple of ingredients you know it’s in that food in a high amount. Gluten-free baked goods often use starches to bind the structure of the food. An excessive quantity of these fast-dissolving carbohydrates result in a high glycemic index food. So if you see potato, tapioca, or corn starch within the first couple of ingredients- it’s not a good sign.
Another way to assess the blood sugar potential of a baked good is to check out the fiber content. The presence of fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate will slow down the gastric emptying rate and subsequently the release of glucose into the bloodstream. A good amount of fiber for a serving of food is 3 to 5 grams. A not-so-good amount is <1 gram.
Hopefully this gives you some clues on your next gluten-free shopping excursion. For further information on gluten-free resources, consult the Gluten Intolerance Group.
This is part 2 of an overly-long gluten discussion that started in the previous post. We're exploring the nature of gluten, why some people avoid it, and the nutritional properties of gluten-free products on the market. Why do some people choose to avoid gluten?
All right, are you asleep yet? FDA regulation talk gets boring real fast! Let’s get back to why someone would care that there is gluten in his or her food. Some people avoid gluten because they are either allergic or have a sensitivity. People who have a gluten allergy have Celiac disease. This is caused by a genetic predisposition that affects about 1 in every 133 people in the US*. People who suffer from Celiac disease can experience a wide variety of symptoms after they eat gluten. Anything from diarrhea to skin rashes to fatigue, or a number of other not-so-pleasant happenings. For those with Celiac disease, gluten can actually damage the intestinal wall. People who have a sensitivity to gluten can also experience a variety of symptoms, but they are usually not as severe. The difference between an allergy and a sensitivity has to do with what kind of immune cells are reacting, but let’s not go into further detail than that.
Did I say this was going to get more boring, or less? Let’s go for less boring- more thrilling tales of wheat proteins!
Some people choose to avoid gluten because they like to try alternative grains like amaranth or quinoa (which is technically a seed and not a grain, but let’s not go into that!).
Some people choose to avoid gluten because it is a little trendy at the moment. Others are under the impression that gluten-free foods are inherently healthier than gluten-containing foods. Let’s investigate that thought in part 3 of this discussion…*Source: Krause's Food & Nutrition Therapy, 12 Ed. (Saunders Elsevier, 2008)
I started writing about gluten and I found I had a REALLY hard time stopping. Therefore, this has become part 1 of a 3-part series of posts all about gluten. When you see how lengthy this first post is, I think you'll understand!
There are many different reasons why people choose to follow a gluten-free diet. Before we discuss them, let’s talk about exactly what gluten is, and what it means when you see the words “gluten-free” on a food label.
What the heck is a Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other members of the wheat family. It’s actually made up of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin (this one is the troublemaker for those who are allergic to gluten, but more on that below). Glutenin and gliadin are a dream team for creating fluffy baked goods that hold their shape. Glutenin strands create a solid structure for holding air bubbles and gliadin is like a firm yet stretchy cement that holds it all together. This is why gluten-containing grains are pretty ideal for creating baked goods; you get a product that is soft and springy but doesn’t crumble to bits when you take a bite out of it.
Labeling Requirements for Gluten and other Allergens
So what does is mean when you see the words “gluten-free” on a label? If it doesn’t have wheat in the ingredients- it’s gluten-free right? If there’s one simple idea to remember about food labeling, it’s that it’s never that simple. The first trick is that there are many different varieties of wheat, so wheat could show up as a lot of different things on an ingredient list. The second trick is that close relatives of wheat like barley and rye also contain gluten. Here is a list of names for gluten-containing grains (some are types of wheat, some are closely-related members of the wheat family):
If a product contains some variety of wheat in it that is not described as “wheat” in the ingredients, the FDA requires that it is stated under the label. You may have seen this for other potential allergens as well, such as nuts or dairy.
This is from a Theo Chocolate Bar that has long since been eaten (Jealous? You should be!). You can see the Allergen Statement in bold below the ingredients.
The third trick to gluten-free labeling is that non-gluten-containing grains are often processed and packaged in facilities where they also process wheat. This means that they can become cross-contaminated with gluten, which is a problem for those who have a gluten allergy. Currently the FDA does not require food manufacturers to place a warning on the label when foods are processed on shared equipment with allergens. You may see a warning below the ingredient list, but this is a voluntary statement. Smart food manufacturers often do place a shared equipment warning on their label, because they generally don’t have an interest in someone going into anaphylactic shock after consuming their food. Here’s the guideline direct from the FDA:
FALCPA's labeling requirements do not apply to major food allergens that are unintentionally added to a food as the result of cross-contact. In the context of food allergens, "cross-contact" occurs when a residue or other trace amount of an allergenic food is unintentionally incorporated into another food that is not intended to contain that allergenic food.
FALCPA stands for the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, the last major piece of legislation passed on this subject. This discussion has quickly grown longer than I wanted it to, but here’s the final piece: what exactly does it mean when you see the words “gluten-free” on a label?
Here you can see the shared equipment warning below the ingredients.
The FDA is currently in the process of defining a legal definition for gluten-free, which means that there is no current standard. Generally companies will list their product as gluten-free when there is no gluten in the ingredients, and the products were not manufactured on shared equipment with gluten.
There are some foods that are certified gluten-free by non-governmental agencies, such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). These certifications require higher standards than those of the FDA.
This stamp from the Gluten Intolerance Group is currently the best way to spot a thoroughly gluten-free product.
I recently did a presentation on the use and properties of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) for school. Naturally preparing for it involved slogging through oodles of documents from the Food and Drug Administration on labeling and safety requirements- oh goody! I won’t bore you with any details, but I did come across documentation of an interesting little battle that took place in 1997 between the Sugar Association, the National Soft Drink Association, and the FDA. Here is my recap in layman’s terms:
The Sugar Association filed a complaint with the FDA because they felt that soft drink labeling was dishonest. They found that soft drink companies were listing “sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup” in their ingredients, when in fact they were really only using HFCS to sweeten their stuff.
You may have seen an “and/or” ingredient on a nutrition label before. Check out that potato chip bag- it usually says something like “soybean and/or canola oil” in the ingredients. This is because the company may use either one, specifically whatever one is cheaper when they are making their chips. The FDA states that this can only be done with fats or oils, and only when they are not the predominant ingredient in the food. Since your potato chips are mostly potato, the FDA allows them to be non-specific with the oil used.
The Sugar Association got upset because (1) Sugar is not a fat or an oil, (2) Sweetener is the primary ingredient in soft drinks, and (3) The beverage industry had stopped buying their sugar but was still claiming to use it on their labels!
So what did the FDA have to say about it? Essentially that they knew it was happening but they didn’t have the time or money to deal with it:
“The Agency has not initiated enforcement actions… Because of limited agency resources and because this issue does not involve food safety, the agency will likely maintain this position.”
It’s important to remember that the FDA’s primary concern when it comes to label regulations is food safety. They are not omnipotent; they can’t make sure that every company is entirely honest all the time. When it comes to your food, asking questions and buying from manufacturers you trust is the best way to ensure clarity!
If you'd like to see the full report from the FDA you can read it here.