Is it me or has ‘gluten free’ become the new buzz word? Similar to the familiar slogans like ‘zero calories’, ‘fat free’, and ‘less fat’ , ‘gluten free’ is now being used increasingly by marketers to target not only gluten intolerant, celiac disease suffering shoppers but health-oriented population in general. So, what’s wrong with that? – you ask. Bringing awareness to gluten free alternatives and health issues associated with gluten is great, isn’t it? In the perfect world, the answer would be Yes. In reality, however, every day I see new products appearing on store shelves masking as good nutritious choices while actually being a poison in disguise.
When you first go paleo and see a gluten free version of your favorite cheesecake in the store, you think to yourself – bingo! I can have my cake and eat it too! Not so fast. In most cases you shouldn’t give in to temptation. Most gluten free desserts and gluten free snacks on the market are packed with artificial sweeteners, soy and other harmful ingredients. Gluten free does not always equal healthy. In fact, in some cases its much less healthy than the original. To demonstrate this point, I decided to have an experiment at my local grocery store. I randomly picked two classics: Chocolate chip cookies and Golden Oreos (both Christie brand) from the general cookie isle. From the health foods section of the store I picked up their gluten free alternatives, made by Kinnikinnick Foods and Glutino brands respectively.
Christie Vs. Glutino Oreo style cookies
From the Nutrition Facts perspective the two seem to be almost identical. In other words, gluten free version matches the standard version in terms of calories, fat, sodium, cholesterol, overall carbs and sugar contents.
Digging deeper, the first thing that popped at me as I was doing the ingredient review was how long the list of ingredients ended up being for the Glutino’s product. Experience taught me that bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to ingredient lists.
Enriched wheat flour, Sugar, Coconut oil shortening, Soybean oil, Glucose-fructose, Salt, Corn starch, Baking soda, Natural & artificial flavor, Soy lecithin, Ammonium bicarbonate
Tapioca flour, Rice flour, Palm oil, Shortening (palm oil, soybean oil, canola oil, alpha-tocopherol), Icing sugar, Cassava [tapioca] flour, Sugar, Corn starch, Milled flax seed, Egg white powder, Dextrose, Flavor, Soy lecithin, Salt, Ammonium bicarbonate, Sodium bicarbonate, Colour, Xanthan, Tapioca syrup water.
Zooming in on the labels we see many familiar not-so good ingredients like corn starch, soy lecithin, sugar, glucose etc. These ingredients are present in both the Christie and Gluteno version. What’s different is that the enriched wheat flour is substituted by tapioca and rice flour in gluten free cookies. Both of these flours don’t have gluten, however, they are also lacking the good micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) found in the enriched version of the flour. In addition to being a plain starch, Rice flour specifically has a higher calorie and carb count, and less fiber. The rest of the ingredients in Glutino product seem to be either colorings, flavor additives or thickeners and are similar to what you would normally find in regular product containing gluten .
Christie Vs. Kinnikinnick chocolate chip cookies
Moving on to the chocolate chip cookies. Below is the nutrition information for both standard and gluten-free product:
Once again, in terms of calorie count or other high level nutrition indicators, the two products are fairly similar, although the gluten-free version appears to contain considerably more sodium. Sugar and lots of it under various names is present in both cookie products.
Enriched wheat flour, Semi-sweet chocolate chips (sugar, unsweetened chocolate, dextrose, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, milk ingredients), Vegetable oil shortening (soybean or canola, modified palm, modified palm kernel), Glucose-fructose, Sugar, Dextrose, Corn starch, Baking soda, Fancy molasses, Salt, Ammonium bicarbonate, Artificial flavor, color
Pea starch, Chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla extract), Non-hydrogenated shortening (palm oil and/or canola oil), Sugar, White rice flour, Whole eggs, Potato starch, Water, Salt, Vanilla extract, Pea protein, Modified cellulose, Sodium bicarbonate, Fruit concentrate (dextrose, dextrin, fibre), Pea fibre, Baking powder, Inulin
As we go through the list of the ingredients, we discover an extensive reliance on peas: pea starch, pea flour and pea protein. Pea products have become more popular recently due to advances in technologies. I predict we should expect more and more pea based starches on the market as the industry emphasizes pea’s healthy qualities: source of protein , low allergenic, high in fiber. Despite peas’ relative advantages, it is still not accepted into paleo world, as it is a legume, and as such contains high concentrations of antinutrients like phytate, saponins and lectin. These anti-nutrients have an ability to interfere with normal intestinal function creating various digestive issues such as leaky gut for example. So, although eating small quantities of fresh green peas is ok, consuming processed peas in larger quantities may be harmful. All other non-gluten related ingredients seem to be consistent between the two brands of cookies – varying in names but basically adding up to low-in nutritious value color, taste and texture additives.
Gluten free products rely heavily on soy, tapioca, rice, potatoes and other higher in carbs and lower in protein and other nutrients substitutes to wheat flour. So, when it comes to gluten free baked goods such as bread, cookies, and other desserts, chances are you are getting either the same or less nutrition out of gluten-free version. You are also getting the same amounts of sugar, and some additional chemical compounds (color, flavor, volume additives, etc) that help gluten-free creations taste similar to the original version.
The point of the story – stick to wholesome varieties of food that are naturally gluten free, and stay away from gluten substitutes. Getting store version of gluten free muffin might be a tempting quick and easy fix. The reality is – there are no miracle fixes. The reality is you need to be selective. If you don’t have the time and patience to make your own gluten free muffins at home – research where you can buy authentically healthy versions (a local moms and pops’ coffee shop or a health store perhaps). Don’t rely on mass-marketed gluten free products, or at least if you do – be aware of the consequences and don’t fool yourself into thinking you are doing something good for your body.