Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other members of the wheat family. It’s actually made up of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin (this one is the troublemaker for those who are allergic to gluten, but more on that below). Glutenin and gliadin are a dream team for creating fluffy baked goods that hold their shape. Glutenin strands create a solid structure for holding air bubbles and gliadin is like a firm yet stretchy cement that holds it all together. This is why gluten-containing grains are pretty ideal for creating baked goods; you get a product that is soft and springy but doesn’t crumble to bits when you take a bite out of it.
Labeling Requirements for Gluten and other Allergens
So what does is mean when you see the words “gluten-free” on a label? If it doesn’t have wheat in the ingredients- it’s gluten-free right? If there’s one simple idea to remember about food labeling, it’s that it’s never that simple. The first trick is that there are many different varieties of wheat, so wheat could show up as a lot of different things on an ingredient list. The second trick is that close relatives of wheat like barley and rye also contain gluten. Here is a list of names for gluten-containing grains (some are types of wheat, some are closely-related members of the wheat family):
If a product contains some variety of wheat in it that is not described as “wheat” in the ingredients, the FDA requires that it is stated under the label. You may have seen this for other potential allergens as well, such as nuts or dairy.
Another way to assess the blood sugar potential of a baked good is to check out the fiber content. The presence of fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate will slow down the gastric emptying rate and subsequently the release of glucose into the bloodstream. A good amount of fiber for a serving of food is 3 to 5 grams. A not-so-good amount is <1 gram.
Hopefully this gives you some clues on your next gluten-free shopping excursion. For further information on gluten-free resources, consult the Gluten Intolerance Group.
For those who suffer from Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, the loss of familiar foods like bread and cereal can be a little depressing. Over the last few years, as food manufacturers became aware of the specialty market for those avoiding gluten, a multitude of gluten-free baked goods became available.
Gluten-free baked goods are great, because they can bring a lot of joy to people who thought they were never going to get to eat a dang piece of toast again without suffering serious side effects! But are they somehow healthier? In a word: no. A cookie is still a cookie, whether it’s made with wheat flour or sorghum. That means it’s still a source of added sugar, saturated fat, and excess calories. As with all foods, gluten-free baked goods should be eaten in moderation.
The downside to gluten-free baked goods is that they can have an incredibly high glycemic index. Eating large amounts of high glycemic index foods can wreak havoc on anybody’s blood sugar, but it’s especially a concern for those with diabetes (which means it’s a concern for a full third of the US population). Foods with a high glycemic index do not make for a very satisfying snack; they won’t keep you full for very long due to fast gastric emptying.
Am I saying that all gluten-free baked goods have a high glycemic index? No. While there’s no information on the glycemic index on a nutrition information panel, you can get an idea of how starchy a food is by looking closely at the label.
First, check out that ingredient list. It’s in order of decreasing quantity, so if something is listed in the first couple of ingredients you know it’s in that food in a high amount. Gluten-free baked goods often use starches to bind the structure of the food. An excessive quantity of these fast-dissolving carbohydrates result in a high glycemic index food. So if you see potato, tapioca, or corn starch within the first couple of ingredients- it’s not a good sign.
Another way to assess the blood sugar potential of a baked good is to check out the fiber content. The presence of fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate will slow down the gastric emptying rate and subsequently the release of glucose into the bloodstream. A good amount of fiber for a serving of food is 3 to 5 grams.
Why do some people choose to avoid gluten?
FDA regulation talk gets boring real fast! Let’s get back to why someone would care that there is gluten in his or her food. Some people avoid gluten because they are either allergic or have a sensitivity. People who have a gluten allergy have Celiac disease. This is caused by a genetic predisposition that affects about 1 in every 133 people in the US*. People who suffer from Celiac disease can experience a wide variety of symptoms after they eat gluten. Anything from diarrhea to skin rashes to fatigue, or a number of other not-so-pleasant happenings. For those with Celiac disease, gluten can actually damage the intestinal wall. People who have a sensitivity to gluten can also experience a variety of symptoms, but they are usually not as severe. The difference between an allergy and a sensitivity has to do with what kind of immune cells are reacting, but let’s not go into further detail than that.
Some people choose to avoid gluten because it is a little trendy at the moment. Others are under the impression that gluten-free foods are inherently healthier than gluten-containing foods. *Source: Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy, 12 Ed. (Saunders Elsevier, 2008http://www.iheartmuscles.com/2/post/2012/01/finding-starch-sanity-gluten-free-foods-labeling-and-glycemic-index-part-1-of-3.html