Walk in to any UK supermarket these days and you will probably see a “free from” section, often referring to gluten free products but also dairy free, wheat free, nut free etc. Now if you have an allergic reaction to any of these ingredients then it is obviously great that many shops, café’s and restaurants now cater for a wider range of customers. However I have noticed that a reasonable number of people seem to be confusing these products with healthy eating. In some cases they may be healthy products but just because something is “free from” doesn’t mean it is automatically good for everyone.
The most popular free from labelling at the moment seems to be gluten free foods. For those who don’t know Gluten is essentially a protein composite (gliadin & glutenin conjoined with starch) found in many grains including wheat, barley and rye. When these flours are used in baking the dough will rise easier than gluten free versions and have greater elasticity. The final product will likely stick together better and be more chewy. Gluten is therefore a source of protein in foods such as breads, cakes & pastries.
Some people suffer symptoms such as abdominal bloating, gas, diarrhoea, vomiting, migraines and joint pain after eating foods containing gluten. Around 1 in 100 people in the UK are thought to suffer from an autoimmune condition called coeliac disease where gluten consumption leads to inflammation of the small intestine. A recent study (2012) in the USA found a prevalence of around 1 in 141. There is no cure for coeliac disease but following a gluten free diet will alleviate symptoms. When the symptoms described above occur without the presence of an autoimmune response in the small intestine the person may be suffering from Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (gluten insensitivity) or an insensitivity to a different food stuff such as short chain fermentable carbohydrates (FODMAPs). Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms may also improve by avoiding gluten containing foods.
If you do suffer from any of the symptoms described above then try replacing the gluten containing foods in your diet with gluten free alternatives. If your symptoms disappear you don’t need to see a doctor to know you should be on a gluten free diet! HOWEVER, many gluten free products have a lot of added sugar in them so they are definitely not healthy. If you want to have a healthy diet you should only be having them as alternatives to gluten containing unhealthy sugary snacks on the rare occasions you are allowing yourself unhealthy sugary snacks.
Choosing gluten free products for healthier eating as a bread substitute can a good idea if you want to reduce your calorie intake but be careful to choose low sugar, low salt options such as lightly salted rice cakes or ryvitas. When looking at food & drink labels low salt is defined by the NHS as less than 0.3g salt (or 0.1g sodium) per 100g. High salt products are over 1.5g salt (0.6g sodium) per 100g. An average adult should have less than 6g (roughly 1 teaspoon) per day of total salt. High sugar products are defined as more than 22.5g “of which sugars” per 100g under the carbohydrates section of the label. Low sugar products are defined as less than 5g per 100g.
Personally I think with regards to sugar this is still way too high and would say anything over 10g per 100g “of which sugars” is a high sugar food which should be minimised in your diet. Your GP will be delighted with you if you avoid high sugar food and drink as your chances of developing heart disease, strokes, diabetes and some forms of cancer will significantly decrease. Your dentist will also be happy as your teeth will suffer much less decay and your chiropractor won’t need to see you as much as you will have less inflammatory joint/muscle pain from conditions such as osteoarthritis.
Remember food companies don’t care about your health only your spending habits so they will make gluten free products as appealing as possible within the (very lax) labelling rules. Gluten free and other free from products will reduce or eliminate any symptoms coming from gluten insensitivities but they are not necessarily healthy alternatives when you factor in sugar/salt content. If you want good tasting meals that are also healthy try making your meals from scratch using quality sourced, minimally processed ingredients. The following website has some good examples: CleansimpleUK