Food Forum: What is the gluten-free category missing?

A rush to market is resulting in some products that are not nutritionally sound.

By Julie McGinnis

Expensive alternative grains, starch-filled recipes, and speed to market have left the gluten-free category high and dry of healthy products for a community that really needs them. Gluten-free food void of nutrition and high-quality ingredients is exactly what your newly diagnosed customers and their children with celiac disease or gluten intolerance should not be buying to restore their health.

Yes, the gluten-free category is booming and everyone is buying everything out of a desperate need to replace formally eaten products. However, providing customers with a limited variety of healthy products is perpetuating and supporting this category as an unhealthy one. In addition, health-conscious customers that ate whole wheat foods as a part of their healthy diet from the past are left buying starchy products as a compromise.

The gluten-free community wants healthy, convenient foods just like everyone else, and yes, everyone deserves good comfort foods. However, grocery/frozen buyers should be more discerning and begin to integrate healthy convenience foods from companies making the effort to provide gluten-free products truly worth their higher price.

The gluten-free category is notorious for having high carbohydrate packaged foods that are high glycemic and are low or void of fiber, minerals, vitamins and nutrients. Whether consumers are gluten-free or not, The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals consume at least one-half of all their grains as whole grains. This new emphasis follows research linking whole grains to reduction of chronic disease risk.

The gluten-free category needs healthy convenience foods that contain whole grain flours and are low in sugar, sodium and starch. “A gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthier, with many gluten-free products having more fat and calories than the foods they replace,” says Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group, echoing the sentiment of many dieticians. “Gluten-free packaged foods are deficient in nutrients because the flours and starches used contain no vitamins and minerals, unlike whole wheat flour.”

What many manufacturers have done is taken the easy way out and produced sweet products or snack foods high in sugar, sodium and starch. Sugar and sodium are easy fixes to cover up inferior processed flours and starches with metallic tastes.

In addition, to cut costs most gluten-free products are made of 100% starch which leaves products dry and void of any nutritional content. What the wheat industry did to overcome the nutrients lost in processing whole grain wheat flour to white flour, was to enrich the flours with the vitamins and minerals lost.

I truly hope the gluten-free manufacturers don’t embrace this process, as I have already seen a few products touting the additions of vitamins and minerals. The enriching process contains cheap vitamins and minerals that are poorly absorbed by the body. Enriching starches with a sprinkle of vitamins and minerals only provides a fraction of what whole grains provide. Whole grain in its natural form contains protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals (starches contain none of these)—all of which are present for a reason. These nutrients work together harmoniously in the food and in our bodies.

One big advantage to eating foods in their whole, unprocessed form is that you are getting the natural synergy of all the nutrients together. Michael Pollan introduces the idea of “food synergy” in his book, In the Defense of Food. This definition was proven in a May 2011 study in the Journal of Nutrition. Researchers observed that consuming whole grains reduces mortality from all causes. However, when scientists “identified” all the beneficial nutrients in whole grain, they could not explain why these beneficial effects occurred. The scientists concluded that, “the various grains and their parts interact synergistically.”

While enriching and fortifying foods may sound like a good idea, adding vitamins and minerals that were removed in processing (or that were never there) will never recreate the benefits of eating whole grain foods. Bottom line: You cannot fool Mother Nature. You also cannot fool your body. 

Julie McGinnis, M.S., R.D., has been involved in the field of nutrition for 20 years and started work in a conservative hospital setting as a registered dietitian. Her company, The Gluten Free Bistro, is the culmination of years of nutrition experience and living gluten-free combined with a genuine desire to provide a nutritious product for the celiac and gluten intolerant communities. For more information, visit

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