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Gluten free – be wary of the health halo

While a gluten-free diet is essential for people with coeliac disease, the scientific evidence indicates the avoidance of gluten offers little benefit for most people read more here. Despite a lack of conclusive scientific evidence, the gluten free trend continues to grow off the back of high profile celebrity endorsements, anecdotal evidence and clever marketing. As this global trend is set to continue to influence Australian’s food choices here are some insights and tips to making healthy grain food choices gluten free or otherwise.

Be wary of the gluten free ‘health halo’
The skyrocketing demand for gluten free products from consumers in recent years is likely a reflection that many people’s take home message on gluten is that ‘gluten is bad’. This explains why gluten free claims on food packaging have a “health halo” effect, meaning people perceive a product with a gluten free claim on its packaging as being healthier than other similar products.

In contrast to this perception that gluten free foods may be healthier, a recent investigation of gluten free products by CHOICE indicates that gluten free products often require extra ingredients such as additional fat, extra sugar to create a palatable texture or flavour. In addition, a recent analysis by GLNC of breads and breakfast cereals found that gluten free options tended to be lower in whole grain, fibre and protein, while higher in fat content compared with products not carrying a gluten free claim.(1)

The gluten free “health halo” helps to explain why some people link gluten free foods or a gluten free diet with weight loss. However, it is unlikely that the gluten protein plays a direct role in weight loss, rather weight loss which may be reported after adopting a gluten free diet is in fact a result of a reduced overall energy intake through the ‘cutting out’ of foods which is commonly associated with going gluten free.

Gluten free doesn’t mean grain free
Did you know that grain foods including breads, breakfast cereals, crispbreads and intact grains (oats, rice, quinoa etc), gluten free or otherwise are the number one source of fibre, folate, thiamine, iron, magnesium, iodine, and carbohydrates(2) within the Australian diet?

While ‘cutting out’ or reducing intake of foods higher in added fats, sugars and sodium like biscuits, cakes and take away is a good outcome, cutting out core grain foods recommended as part of a balanced diet  may increase your risk of not meeting your requirements of a range of essential nutrients. This is why it is so important to note that ‘gluten free’ doesn’t mean grain free.

The great news for people with coeliac disease as well as people looking to add variety to their diet is that today there is a wide range of grains available to Australians. These include grains which are naturally gluten free such as rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, amaranth and sorghum. Besides being gluten free these grains are nutritionally similar to gluten containing grains which means they too deliver the essential nutrients we need for health within a balanced diet. They are also prepared and used in much the same way and so are suitable for all meal occasions in a range a cuisines and dishes.

So which grain foods are actually healthier?
Dietary Guidelines around the world recommend a variety of grain foods, mostly whole grain and high fibre grain foods as part of a healthy diet. These recommendations are based on the important nutrient’s these foods provide and the evidence from large population studies which associate eating grain foods, particularly whole grains and high fibre grain foods with a reduced risk of weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.(3)

As breads and breakfast cereals made with wheat, oats, barley or rye are the most commonly eaten grain foods in Australia, it’s clear that these foods make a significant contribution towards Australians nutrient intakes and have lots of potential to reduce risk of disease as part of a balanced diet.

The future…
As demand for gluten free products continues to grow in the coming years, you will no doubt see more and more products making gluten free claims. It is important to be mindful of the “health halo” effect and in line with the dietary guidelines aim to choose higher in whole grain and fibre grain foods more often while limiting discretionary choices like biscuits, cakes and take aways.

The good news is that the demand for healthier options is leading food manufacturers to innovate and develop more nutritious grains foods using gluten free grains and other gluten free ingredients such as legumes. As such the future will no doubt have healthier gluten free options than those products previously available.

References

  1. GLNC. 2014 Audit of Core Grain Foods on Shelf in Australia. Unpublished: 2014.
  2. ABS. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014.
  3. NHMRC. Australian Dietary Guidelines Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets. 2013 Accessed online January 2014

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