The gluten-free diet is, to say the least, a very popular nutritional regime. Although it’s the only treatment for the 1 in 100 people who suffer from coeliac disease, it’s also followed by many others as a lifestyle choice or for various medical reasons. Gluten is an ancient and complex protein that helps bread to rise, providing it with elasticity and its characteristic chewy texture. Humans do not have the proper enzymes to break down the complex proteins found in gluten, yet it’s not harmful to most people. Many claims are made about gluten and the gluten-free diet, but unfortunately many of these aren’t based on scientific fact.
Here are some common misconceptions about the diet:
A gluten-free diet is not always healthy.
This diet can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the food choices one makes. At times, gluten-free processed foods are lower in fibre, vitamins and minerals than their gluten-containing counterparts. They can also be higher in calories, since many processed gluten-free foods contain higher levels of fat and/or sugar to compensate for flavour and texture changes which result from the removal of gluten. A gluten-free diet, just like any normal diet, can be healthy if the right choices are made. According to NHS Choices UK, a balanced diet based on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta with plenty of fruit and vegetables, some protein-rich foods such as beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins, some milk and dairy foods or dairy alternatives and very little saturated fat, salt or sugar, will give you all the nutrients you need. In the case of a gluten-free diet, the same basic principles apply, but gluten-free grains must be included, with preference given to wholegrains. The bulk of the diet should be based on naturally gluten-free foods, and wise choices should be made when selecting processed foods.
A gluten-free diet is not the same as a low carb diet.
Gluten is a protein composite that is found in wheat, barley and rye. However, although carbohydrates are found in these grains, they are also found in gluten-free grains, vegetables, fruits, beans and more. Similarly, gluten can still be found in some low carbohydrate foods. So these terms definitely cannot be used interchangeably.
A gluten-free diet is not totally free from gluten.
According to EU legislation, for an item to be safely labelled as gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This is equivalent to less than 20 milligrams of gluten per 1 Kg of food which is a very small amount. According to Coeliac UK, research shows that this tiny amount of gluten is not toxic to people with coeliac disease and they can eat unlimited amounts of products with gluten at a level of 20 ppm or less.
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A gluten-free and wheat-free label on a product are not the same.
Although gluten is primarily found in wheat, it’s also found in barley, rye and contaminated oats. So if a product is labelled wheat-free, it can still contain gluten through sources other than wheat. Another matter that is sometimes confusing is that gluten-free is not always free from wheat either. Sometimes wheat is processed to remove the gluten. If the level of gluten falls within the acceptable level of gluten to label it as gluten-free, the item can safely be labelled as such. Yet it’s not wheat-free since the item is made from wheat. In this case, wheat would be clearly indicated in the ingredients list of the item concerned.