January 21, 2019
Is Gluten-Free Better for You?

Is Gluten-Free Better for You?

by Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D.  

The food industry is certainly focused on gluten these days—with gluten-free pastas, breads, snack foods and desserts more widely available than ever. These products occupy a lot of space in health-food stores, and some regular supermarkets now devote entire sections to them. Gluten is a protein found in grains—notably wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free products are instead made with brown rice or millet, for example, or some with a combination of rice and corn flours.

All of this is a plus for people with celiac disease (also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy). When these individuals consume gluten-containing foods, the lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed and the hair-like projections called villi, which are needed for digestion, become flattened and unable to absorb nutrients. This results in cramping and diarrhea and can lead to anemia, osteoporosis and other long-term health problems. Typically, a biopsy of the small intestine is needed for a correct diagnosis. There may also be milder forms of the disease that are not as clear-cut.

But if—like the vast majority of people—you do not have a true gluten problem, you do not need to eat gluten-free foods. There is no nutritional advantage, despite what marketers may suggest. In fact, unless the gluten-free product is a whole-grain product (and many are not), you will miss out on the important nutrients and fiber that whole grains provide. Lots of gluten-free foods are now just as junky as many wheat-based snack foods and baked goods. Not surprisingly, gluten-free foods also tend to cost more.