If we were to write a suspense novel, it would be titled Where Have All the Grains Gone? Given the state of the pasta, cereal, and bread aisles these days, this mystery novel for foodies would certainly be a bestseller. While most of us grew up slurping up wheat-based spaghetti and biting into schoolyard PB&Js made with doughy flour bread, it’s never been easier to slather nut butter on your morning toast and tower Bolognese on a bowl of penne while maintaining a grain-free lifestyle. Seemingly everything from “rice” to “granola” is being offered in no-grain options.
So what’s driving the rise of grain-free offerings on store shelves? As grain-wary diets like keto and Paleo continue to take hold, carb-conscious consumers are demanding versions of their favorite foods made without wheat, rice, and other grains. From metabolic health to weight loss, there are many reasons why people consider bidding adieu to grains. And these products make it much less arduous to do so.
7 Things to Know About Grain-Free Foods
At first glance, grain-free loaves of bread, cereal, and baking mixes seem similar to traditional versions—until you peek at the ingredient lists. Mac & cheese made with chickpeas, crunchy taco shells crafted from cassava flour, breakfast-ready granola minus the oats and ready-to-bake pizza crust featuring cauliflower are among the new generation of lookalike packaged foods. Heck, grain-free baking mixes let you effortlessly rustle up a batch of cookies, brownies, or muffins using flours such as almond and coconut that taste remarkably similar to what your mom used to pull out of the oven. This raises the question, should you embrace these impostors? Consider these seven factors:
1. Diabetics May Benefit More than Others
Certainly, not everyone needs to completely steer clear of grains, especially if you focus on more nourishing varieties such as quinoa, oats, spelt, and whole-grain sourdough. But there are cases where it can be beneficial to make a stir-fry with riced veggies. For instance, a 2021 meta-analysis in the journal The BMJ found there is enough evidence from previously published studies that adhering to a low-carb diet can lead to disease remission in those with type 2 diabetes. And some of these products offer other nutritional virtues not found in traditional versions.
2. To Get Your Fiber Fix, Think Beans
Rotini and other pasta shapes made with chickpeas will deliver at least twice as much plant-based protein and dietary fiber as regular pasta, a big perk considering that few people eat enough fiber even though consuming higher amounts is linked to a lower risk for diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Just remember that if you aren’t used to eating a lot of fiber, switching to fiber-rich, legume-based pasta and rice can lead to gassy side-effects until your system gets used to them.
3. Pick Nutrient-Dense Options
Tortillas featuring almond flour and oat-free muesli beefed up with extra nuts and seeds provide a boost of beneficial fats and other essential nutrients like vitamin E. Using a cauliflower crust for pizza night may give you some of the potent disease-thwarting antioxidants found in this cruciferous vegetable. Heart of palm “pasta” is a rich source of minerals, particularly potassium, iron, copper, phosphorus, and zinc.
4. Boost Your Longevity
And not to be overlooked is that grain-free bread and cereals can help lower our intake of refined grains, which can be an upgrade for longevity. A meta-analysis found that adults with high consumption of refined grains like those found in white pasta and slices of bread made with wheat flour had a higher mortality risk and risk for major cardiovascular disease events, as compared with those with low intakes of nutritionally bereft refined grains.
5. Beware of Imposters
There are a few caveats worth noting when it comes to these impostors. If you follow a Paleo, keto, or gluten-free diet, you would think that grain-free foods are inherently low in carbohydrates, but this is not always the case. Glaring examples are the products that swap out grain-based flour for cassava flour, which is derived from a particularly starchy root vegetable. In the end, the amount of carbs in cassava-based tortillas and boxed cereals can be on par with grain-based versions. Not necessarily a detriment, just something to keep an eye on if you are trying to live a lower-carb lifestyle. And though cassava will have an upper hand in certain nutrients such as vitamin C, whole wheat flour will best its grain-free counterpart for other nutrients, including magnesium. Other ingredients like arrowroot and sweeteners such as coconut sugar can also drive up carb numbers in a serving of grain-free fare.
6. Keep an Eye on Calories
Not all calories are created equal, but if you’re itching to drop a few pounds, you’ll need to practice some restraint. Ingredients such as coconut, avocado oil, and nut butters can drive numbers higher than what is found in grain-based products. Top low-calorie options for pasta alternatives include heart of palm pasta and shiitake noodles (made from glucomannan, a type of fiber).
7. Don’t Be Taken In by Marketing
Know that food marketing can trick you into thinking some choices are healthier than their actual make-up divulges. Products can still contain troubling amounts of sugar, heavily refined oils, and various additives. As with any food, it’s important to do your homework and read food labels. And remember that almond flour brownies should still be considered a processed food that’s not nearly as good for you as a handful of whole almonds—even without the all-purpose flour.
With increased options comes more competition, meaning that brands have to work harder to develop inventive products with better flavor and texture. Here’s what you would find in our grain-free shopping cart.
Modern Table Penne—A lentil-based pasta with a boost of pea protein that even Italian grandmas would enjoy.
Purely Elizabeth Cauli Hot Cereal—Oatmeal-esque cereal cups featuring almond protein powder and stealth cauliflower.
RightRice Garlic Herb—Made with lentil and chickpea flour, this rice swap contains three times as much protein as the original stuff.
Cali’flour Spicy Jalapeno Pizza Crust—Perfectly sized for individual pizzas, these crusts prove that cauliflower is the chameleon of the veggie world.
Forager Organic Grain-free Os—All generations in a household won’t be the wiser that this boxed cereal is made with cassava and navy beans instead of corn.
Bob’s Red Mill Paleo Style Muesli—This whole-food no-oat muesli is a perfect topping for a bowl of yogurt or an out-of-hand snack.
Siete Cassava & Chia Tortillas—Most grain-free tortillas crumple when stuffing and rolling, not these guys.
Birch Benders Banana Paleo Pancake & Waffle Mix—All you only need to do is add water, mix, and cook your morning flapjacks. Bonus points for containing real banana and not mystery flavoring.
From Better Nutrition