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The Celiac Expert

Injecting Health into the Gluten-Free Diet

Gluten-free food choices are a great thing, but now we need nutrition along with taste.

The gluten-free market is exploding with a growing number of widely available specialty products. This is welcome news for those who need to follow a gluten-free diet. But while you rejoice over the many choices available at the supermarket and online, you also need to be aware that not all gluten-free items are created equal.

Perhaps you have a sharp eye for a gluten-free package claim and are a pro at scanning food labels to avoid wheat, rye or barley as ingredients. But your expertise in label reading should not stop there. How often do you read the nutrition facts table on a product?

As new research (including my own) shows, this is emerging as an extremely important step if those with celiac disease are to get an adequate amount of vital nutrients in their diet. It is essential to look at the types of ingredients used in the product, then learn to compare the nutrition facts table with those of similar products.

So just how nutritious are gluten-free products? Let’s look at recent history to find out. Back in 1999 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, dietitian Tricia Thompson reviewed the ingredient lists and nutritional composition of various gluten-free products. She assessed the thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2) and niacin (Vitamin B3) content of gluten-free  flours, breads, rice and corn flours, cornmeal and mixes. Seventy-three percent of breads, cold cereals and pastas contained a refined grain or starch as the first ingredient and only 32 percent of the refined products were enriched. Fewer than 10 percent of the flours, breads and cereals and none of the pasta varieties were enriched.

Her comparison of the vitamin B1, B2 and B3 status of 64 gluten-free products and gluten-containing counterparts was an eye-opener. Ninety-two percent of the GF products were lower in one, two or even all three of these vitamins.

In a follow-up study in 2000, Thompson turned to the folate, iron and fiber content of GF products. None of the breads or pastas and only three cold cereals were enriched with folic acid. When it came to iron, none of the pastas and only 12 percent of the breads and 3 percent of cold cereals were enriched. And 31 percent of the breads, pastas and cereals had lower amounts of fiber than their gluten-containing counterparts.

Fast forward to the present. You’re no doubt expecting things to have improved. Let’s start with the work of Canadian researchers Tasha Kulai and Moshin Rashid, who in 2013 compared 71 gluten-free and 60 gluten-containing products. Many of the gluten-free products were lower in vitamins and minerals and higher in fat, carbohydrates and calories. For example, the iron content of all the gluten-free products was about one-third of that in the gluten-containing items; an average of 8.6 milligrams (mg) of iron compared to 25 mg. Gluten-free pasta was higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein, iron, folate and fiber.

I’ve also examined the issue of nutritional value, recently completing an evaluation of the enrichment status of almost 1,000 gluten-free products from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, which are available in North America.

Next: Nutritional composition study

Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.