A quick trip down the natural foods section of your grocery store likely reveals box after box showcasing “gluten-free” on the label, indicating items free from wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of those grains. Now, the buzz phrase is infiltrating the rest of the aisles — on pasta, cereal, and even items like sauces, popcorn and potato chips that never even contained gluten in the first place. From 2011 to 2013, the gluten-free market grew 44 percent. More than half of consumers who buy these foods (65 percent) do so because they think the items are actually healthier. But, reading “gluten-free” on a product’s label doesn’t always mean it’s automatically a nutrition rock star.
Compared to whole-grain foods, gluten-free versions often lack essential vitamins and nutrients and turn to added sugar and fat to make up for taste and texture. They’re loaded with refined un-enriched grains and starches, meaning the grains have been milled (a process that removes dietary fiber, iron and many B vitamins).
While it’s generally better to just ditch processed foods and stick to whole, real foods when possible (for instance, fruit, veggies, nuts and beans) we all crave some carbs and comfort food every once in a while — gluten-allergy or not. Learn how to buy healthier gluten-free products — from pasta and bread to crackers, snack bars and cereal — with our tips and insight from Rachel Begun, R.D., gluten-related disorders expert.
Tons of conventional pasta brands have joined the gluten-free ranks with their own varieties. But beware: Though bigger brands have the ability to produce pasta for a fraction of the price, most varieties have sub-par nutritional value.
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While gluten-free and regular pastas typically have the same amount of calories per serving, some of the former options have only one gram of fiber versus many whole-wheat varieties that have six. And though whole-wheat pasta has only a small amount of iron in every serving, most gluten-free brands lack any vitamins or minerals at all. “Some gluten-free pastas are made from empty starches and refined grains, thereby providing little in the way of nutrition,” Begun says.
Try to purchase pastas made from whole grains like quinoa or brown rice to add back some of that iron and fiber. “Fiber, protein and healthy fats all contribute to satiety,” Begun says, “meaning they fill us up on smaller portion sizes.” Look for brands with ingredients like flax seed, rice bran and nut flours, which add healthy fats to the mix and keep us fuller, longer.
With a super-low fiber content (usually only about one gram per two slices), gluten-free breads may leave your stomach grumbling soon after lunch is over. Quite a few of these loafs use potato starch and tapioca starch in attempts to produce a lighter, fluffier product. Unfortunately, that leaves out many of the healthy nutrients found in whole grains.
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Beware of starches and white rice flour leading the pack on the ingredients label. As a result of using those ingredients, most gluten-free breads have double the carbs of whole-wheat bread (and that factors in the small size of a gluten-free slice). Even whole-grain gluten-free breads are highly processed and contain a long list of ingredients, including added sugars and chemical agents to soften the dough since there’s no gluten present. According to Begun, at this stage in the gluten-free game, refined grains and starches are still necessary to make good quality, better tasting products, “so it’s unlikely to find options that completely eliminate them,” she says.
Purchase breads containing seeds and a mixture of healthy grains (like millet and amaranth) other than just brown rice. “Breads with a whole grain as the first or second ingredient are ideal,” Begun says. Extra protein, like pea protein for instance, or all organic and non-genetically modified ingredients are an added bonus.
Yes, it’s possible to have cheese without them, but sometimes we’ve just got to kill that crunchy, salty craving with a cracker. Pretzels aren’t exactly a healthy gluten-free snacking choice as the first five ingredients are typically starches, oils, sugar and salt. Thankfully, some crackers are made of more promising ingredients.
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Just like the other foods on this list, we have a similar guideline for crackers: Steer clear of varieties with low protein and low fiber content. Crackers that list cornstarch as the first ingredient? Those are a no-no unless you’re a fan of baked, flavored cornstarch, which features no fiber, no protein and a whopping 24 grams of carbohydrates for a very small serving.
According to Begun, options made mostly from gluten-free whole grains and nut flour reign supreme. Seek out varieties that include seeds — like flax, chia and sesame — which add nutrients including omega-3s and protein. Bean powders may be tossed into the mix to increase the fiber and protein count even more. Look for at least three grams of fiber and three grams of protein for a more satisfying crunch.
Gluten-Free Snack Bars
Granola and protein bars make for a convenient, grab-and-go snack. They’re pre-wrapped, mess-free, and easy to toss in a gym bag or briefcase before heading out the door. Unfortunately, many snack bars rely on sweet syrups and coatings for optimal taste rather than optimal nutrition.
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“Avoid bars with an added sugar as the first ingredient,” Begun says. Many snack bars on supermarket shelves, gluten-free or not, are loaded with the sweet stuff. Chocolate or yogurt coatings are a major red flag, too. Some labels feature incognito sugars with less recognizable names including brown rice syrup, maltitol, evaporated cane juice, dextrose and sorbitol. “There are very few snack bars on the market that are truly a healthful option,” Begun says. And, many bars print “gluten-free” on their labels just to appear healthy.
Try to find bars with high protein counts. As a rule of thumb, choose bars with more grams of protein than sugar (shoot for at least eight to 10 grams). Products made with naturally gluten-free ingredients like nuts, seeds, gluten-free grains, beans and dried fruit tend to be the healthiest options. “Protein enhancers such as whey, whole soybeans and pea protein are good, too,” Begun says.
For gluten-free eaters, most conventional cereals are automatically off the table (unless you’re looking in the natural foods section of the grocery store), since the majority of boxes on the shelf include wheat. There are a few gluten-free friendly mainstream cereals, but they’re generally lacking enriched vitamins and nutrients.
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“Just like their conventional counterparts, gluten-free cereals can also be loaded with added sugars,” Begun says. A good rule of thumb, she says, is to stick to options featuring five grams of sugar or less per serving. While puffed grains (light and air-filled grains created by high pressure and steam to increase their original size) — such as puffed white rice — are a good low-cal option, but the high heat used during manufacturing destroys a lot of their nutritional value.
Choose cereals with gluten-free whole grains such as brown rice, oats (make sure they’re certified gluten-free), quinoa, amaranth and millet. If you want to try out puffed grains, opt for fortified versions, meaning essential vitamins and minerals like iron and amino acids are pumped back into the cereal. Seeds are an added bonus. Or you can buy your own gluten-free cereal grains and whip up a semi-homemade cereal.
Yes, it’s easy to point fingers at most of the food found in boxes and bags (read: processed), but that doesn’t mean gluten-free eaters have to cut out pasta, bread, crackers, snack bars, or cereal forever. With the right ingredients and nutrition stats in mind, gluten-free buying is a little less complicated and a whole lot more satisfying.