A Quick & Easy Guide to Gluten-Free

Seems like everyone's going gluten free. Should you?
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Seems like everyone's going gluten free. Should you?

There’s been an explosion of gluten-free products in the last few years. From grocery stores to farmers’markets to restaurant menus, you can’t help but notice the term “gluten-free” everywhere. But what does it actually mean? And should you be worrying about your gluten consumption?

What Is Gluten, Anyway?

Gluten is the naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley, rye and similar grains like triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. The typical American pantry is loaded with foods that contain gluten, including breads, cereals, pastas, wheat flour and beer. Individuals typically avoid gluten because they have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, or as part of a weight-loss diet.

Those suffering from celiac disease– an estimated 3 million Americans according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – cannot digest gluten properly. For celiac sufferers, foods that contain gluten damage the lining of the small intestine, leading to poor nutrient absorption and a host of serious health problems. Some individuals who do not have celiac disease may still suffer from symptoms when they eat gluten, such as headaches, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and this is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Going Gluten-Free as a Lifestyle Choice

As chronicled in an article published in 2013 in The New York Times by Kenneth Chang, the rate of celiac appeared to be increasing from only a century ago. But this does not wholly justify the mass appeal of gluten-free products. The market research company The NPD Group found a “gradual but steady increase” from 2010 to 2012 in the percentage of adults who either cut down or avoided gluten entirely. “In 2013, the percent of adults claiming they are trying to cut down on or avoid gluten completely rose to 30%, but then in 2014 it came back down to 29% and leveled off at that point,”says The NPD Group’s food and beverage industry analyst Darren Seifer. So, what accounted for the surge?

Enter the gluten-free dieters. Two popular claims of a gluten-free diet are weight loss and increased energy. As with any other exclusionary diet, weight loss largely depends on which foods individuals use to replace gluten-rich foods. Yes, many gluten-containing foods are also calorie dense; eating gluten-free eliminates most cakes, pies and a variety of high-fat, high-calorie treats. But in order to lose weight, one must replace those items with smart options, such as fruits and vegetables. Cutting out processed foods and focusing on fruits and vegetables may also account for the reports of increased energy.

However, despite the rising popularity of gluten-free products among consumers, gluten alone does not contribute to weight gain. If you are eating clean and don’t have a gluten sensitivity, you can enjoy whole grains as part of a balanced diet. See our Guide to Whole Grains for more information.

Regardless of whether consumers are celiac disease sufferers or simply gluten-weary dieters, the prevalence and popularity of gluten-free products speaks for itself. According to the market research group Mintel, gluten-free food and beverage sales reached $10.5 billion in 2013 and are expected to soar to $15.6 billion by 2016. From 2012 to 2014, sales of gluten-free snacks hit $2.8 million. Even the Girl Scouts have added a gluten-free cookie, Toffee-tastic, to their cookie lineup.

Gluten-Free Labeling: Rules and Regulations

Foods that boast a gluten-free label do so voluntarily. In August 2013, the FDA introduced guidelines for labeling items as gluten-free, and these guidelines went into effect in 2014. Now, any food labeled as “gluten-free,”“free of gluten,”“no gluten”or “without gluten” must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the lowest scientifically detectable level. Items that are inherently free of gluten can also fly the gluten-free flag. These rules only apply to packaged foods and dietary supplements, though the FDA encourages restaurants making gluten-free claims to comply with this definition.

Avoiding Gluten? Start Here.

Given the abundance of gluten-free products, there’s no shortage of alternatives for those adhering to a gluten-free diet. From items that are inherently gluten-free to the best substitutes on the market, here are our top swaps for the most common gluten-rich items:

Can’t Eat:Pasta

Eat instead: Pastas made from the naturally gluten-free seed quinoa. Ancient Harvest’s gluten-free pastas include a variety of noodles, including spaghetti, shells, penne and elbow. But for the best clean-eating alternative, spiralize zucchini and use “zoodles” instead of noodles.

Recipe:Thai Mango Zucchini Noodle Salad with Chicken.

Can’t Eat:Wheat flour

Eat Instead: Almond flour/meal, which is also inherently gluten-free. King Arthur Almond Flour is a great gluten-free purveyor to try as its almond flour is made in a gluten-free facility, eliminating the risk of gluten contamination.

Recipe:Almond Apple Squares.

Can’t Eat: Crackers

Eat Instead:Rice cakes. Lundberg’s salt-free Organic Brown Rice Cakes are made from one ingredient: organic whole grain brown rice.

Can’t Eat:Bread

Eat Instead: Dark leafy greens, lettuce or nori (toasted seaweed) sheets. It’s difficult to find a gluten-free bread alternative that isn’t loaded with artificial ingredients. When in need of a bread-like vessel, grab a leaf of collard greens or romaine lettuce or even a sheet of nori.

Recipe:Swiss Chard Wraps with Almond Lime Dip

Can’t Eat:Cereal.

Eat Instead: Flaxseed cereal. While a lot of popular cereals have gluten-free alternatives and offer rice or corn versions, they contain other nasties like sugar, preservatives or artificial flavorings. Flaxseed cereals, however, can be eaten hot or cold and come packed with nutrients such as plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber.

See alsoForm of Flax.

When attempting to navigate the gluten-rich world on your own, be wary of the following:

  1. Hidden Gluten. For the most part, gluten products are easy to spot. But you might be surprised to learn that the following items may also contain gluten: processed lunch meats, salad dressings, soy sauce, soups and soup bases and pickles.
  2. Contamination. Grains can come in contact with wheat during the growing or processing stages of production, tainting them with gluten.
  3. No Labels. The FDA’s guidelines do not cover labeling regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), so it does not pertain to meats, poultry and certain egg products, nor does it cover alcoholic beverages.
  4. Misleading Labels. Products labeled wheat-free may still contain gluten, as gluten comes from not only wheat but also barley and rye.
  5. Daily Medication. Some pills and vitamins use gluten as a binding agent, so always read labels.