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Gluten-free menus: finding the right ingredients

By Katya Baxter, Nutritionist,

Gluten-free cake, gluten-free cookies – you name it, we’ve got it! In my last post we talked about food allergies. While gluten-intolerance by medical definition is not an ‘allergy’, it is clearly taking center stage. Gluten-intolerant customers have their own set of  needs, and it is essential that if we offer a gluten-free selection, we are able to provide them with menu offerings rich in flavor and nutrition.

While grocery store shelves are stacked full of gluten-free products, it is important not to get carried away with the notion of ‘gluten-free’ as being somehow ‘healthier’, or ‘better’. As we will see, it is not always the case. The key is to be able to distinguish between nutrient-rich and nutrient-deficient gluten-free foods and ingredients.

The best place to start is with paying careful attention to labels. Here are a few things to watch out for:

#1. Make sure the label clearly states the product is gluten-free. From the example below you can see that even though Kimchi might appear to be gluten-free, there is no indication that one of the ingredients, fish sauce, does not contain any wheat or gluten.I have also included some of the commonly used gluten-free logos and notifications for gluten-free products. Remember, if no such claim is made, there is a possibility of cross-contamination during the production process.

#2. Many gluten-free products are made out of rice, corn, potato flours and xanthan and guar gum. Although naturally gluten-free, none of these ingredients are high in nutrients, thereby essentially providing consumers with empty calories. An example of such product would be starchy noodles depicted here.

#3. Be aware of products that are over-processed. This is particularly relevant for such items as GF beverages, noodles, cookies, cakes, snack bars, frozen waffles, crackers, etc. Unfortunately, just like numerous other products, packaged gluten-free items are most often over-processed. We all know what chemical and mechanical processing does to the nutritional value of an ingredient. To save the taste, sugar, fat or salt are added, which all, ironically, are naturally gluten-free! The result: gluten-free food with little nutritional value.

#4. Stay away from products with additives and preservatives. To echo tip #3, processing generally opens the door to additives and preservatives. Yes, something simple like a pickled plum might be naturally gluten-free, but as we see from the ingredient list, it is full of items that have little business being there (MSG, corn starch, ethyl alcohol). As Michael Pollan said it well: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

Tip #5. Know your naturally occurring gluten-free foods. The good news is that not all gluten-free foods are void of nutrients. There are plenty of foods in their unprocessed state we can enjoy that are naturally gluten-free and are rich in nutrition:

  1. Fruits and vegetables
  2. Legumes
  3. Nuts and seeds
  4. Animal protein and seafood
  5. Dairy products
  6. Fats and oils
  7. Sweeteners
  8. And finally several grains: quinoa, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, rice, teff, sorghum, corn, oats*

Despite the fact that many gluten-free products are nutrient-deficient, there are a number of manufacturers out there who take great pride in creating gluten-free products that are not only nutritionally rich, but also taste great.

The bottom line is that while gluten-free can be helpful for those with gluten-intolerance or sensitivity, it doesn’t always mean it provides the nutrition we need. And if we are going to offer a gluten-free dish on the menu, it only makes sense to create it from truly nourishing ingredients.

* Oats are inherently gluten-free, but are frequently contaminated with wheat during growing or processing. Five companies (Bob’s Red Mill, Cream Hill Estates, Gluten Free Oats, Only Oats from FarmPure Foods, and Gifts of Nature) currently offer pure, uncontaminated oats.

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