For Most People, Gluten-Free Is Probably Not a Healthier Choice

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Gluten-free cookies. Gluten-free communion wafers. Gluten-free beer. It seems no matter where you turn these days, gluten-free products are being hyped as the next best thing. It’s reportedly a $10 billion industry.

But a gluten-free diet, with its high-priced products, can be a shock to your food budget. And it may not be as healthy as many people think.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac disease (1 percent of the population) must avoid gluten because it causes significant health problems for them. Others believe they have a non-celiac sensitivity to gluten, although researchers have found that those people may actually be sensitive to FODMAPs, a group of carbohydrates found in many foods.

Regardless, a recent survey by Consumer Reports’ National Research Center revealed that 63 percent of Americans believe a gluten-free diet will improve their physical and mental health. NPR says a third of Americans are now trying to avoid gluten in foods.

But that’s not such a great idea. Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said that unless you have celiac disease or a demonstrated gluten intolerance, there’s no medical reason to ditch gluten, and doing so has its own risks.

“When you cut out gluten completely, you can cut out foods that have valuable nutrients, and you may end up adding more calories and fat into your diet,” he told CR.

That sure sounds like a recipe for weight gain.

“Often, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food,’’ Dr. Peter H. R. Green, director of the celiac disease center at the Columbia University medical school, told The New Yorker’s Michael Specter.

Specter added, “That becomes clear after a cursory glance at the labels of many gluten-free products.”

Also, CR says, many gluten-free products contain some form of rice, which can contain inorganic arsenic. “If you don’t have to give up gluten, the likelihood that you’ll consume a significant amount of arsenic following a typical gluten-free diet should give you pause,” said Dr. Michael Crupain, associate director of Consumer Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports.

WebMD discusses the benefits of gluten:

Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits. But the many whole grains that contain gluten do. They’re rich in an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fiber. Studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of all carbohydrates in the diet come from whole grain products.

Want to know more? Warren Olney hosted a good discussion on Public Radio International’s “To the Point.”

Do you strive to be gluten-free, or do you think it’s just another fad diet? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

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