Gluten-free products. Are they a better option?
Gluten is a natural protein found in wheat. The sticky and elastic properties of gluten are what makes flour into fluffy bread. Have you ever tried gluten-free bread? It’s like a brick!
Because of gluten’s properties, it is often used in other products for a smooth or well-formed product like in some sauces and bars or to increase protein content.
For some people, gluten can be very hard to digest and it triggers a range of responses from bloating and gas to serious allergic reactions1. Mild abdominal discomfort after ingesting gluten may signal an intolerance. Or that maybe last night’s pasta serve was just too large for poor old stomach to handle.
Gluten only needs to be avoided by those diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, an autoimmune disease that can be life-threatening1.
Approximately 300,000 or 1.5% of Australians are coeliacs1. Yet, gluten-free products are purchased by approximately one million Australians1.
Previously, gluten-free products were only obtainable from health-food stores or had to be made at home from wheat-alternatives. But due to demand from coeliacs, and from manufacturers seizing the opportunity to market a new ‘health product’, the number of gluten-free products available has grown exponentially1. On the plus side, this has allowed coeliacs to enjoy a broader and nutritionally diverse range of foods and opened up doors to social eating events. But there are downsides, too.
The increase in gluten-free products is also sparked by fad dieting and debates around the benefits of carbohydrates.
The main seller for (non-coeliac) gluten-free fad diets is weight loss. Take this example below from GlutenFree.com. In the ‘Yum!’ column, the gluten-free side, are fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat and fish. These are all the healthy foods Nutritionists (and your mum) have been telling you to eat for years.
And in the ‘Run!’ column, the gluten-containing side? Corndogs, cake, beer and other highly processed foods. Are the health benefits seen in a gluten-free diet really due to avoiding gluten or from switching to a fresher, more wholesome diet?
As consumers, we are constantly moving towards healthier alternatives2 and becoming more educated towards health claims and the science-based evidence of these claims3. The extent of knowledge around these claims divides us in to two types of people: those that consume gluten-free products for medical purposes (coeliacs) and those who follow trends or the ‘fashion conscious’1.
Gluten-free products often enhance their taste and texture by adding non-nutritive ingredients or high salt and fat content. Eggs, guar gum and xantham gum are often used, as are dough enhancers, dry milk solids and gelatines4. Overall, gluten-free flours only make up 25 to 30% of the whole gluten-free product4.
The gluten-free market was predicted to be short-lived1 however this market is proving to be ever popular. Of all gluten-free products, the highest growth has been seen in chocolate biscuits1.
Each year, ready-to-eat gluten-free products such as pies, pizzas, cakes and muffins increase by 30%1. Not a great list healthy products. The take home message? Be very wary that gluten-free labels don’t mean a healthier product and unless you are coeliac, you don’t need to choose gluten-free.
For more information about Coeliac Disease visit Coeliac Australia at www.coeliac.org.au.
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- Vinning, G., McMahon, G. (2006). Gluten-free grains: A demand-and-supply analysis of prospects for the Australian health grains industry [Report]. Kenmore, QLD: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
- IBISWorld. (2016). Snack food manufacturing in Australia. Retrieved from http://clients1.ibisworld.com.au.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/reports/au/iexpert/default.aspx?entid=1858
- Prepared Foods. (August, 2011). The future of physiologically beneficial foods. Retrieved from http://www.PreparedFoods.com
- Croxford, S. (2016). DTN4FSF, Practical 3, Modify the gluten, fat, salt and/or sugar content of existing recipes that result in a product that is appealing from a sensory perspective [Practical Guidelines]. Food Science and Food Skills, Bundoora: La Trobe University