Look out for gluten-free saboteurs (and other info on reading food labels)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

When you're working with wheat, it's easy to see that some products use the whole grain, and others do not. In the case of gluten free products, the wheat replacement is such a mix of several ingredients that it's really tough to identify which are "healthy" options and which are not. Some of the options for that ever-so-carefully engineered mixture, can include: bean flours (chickpea, garbanzo, fava bean), rice flours (white and brown), teff, buckwheat, tapioca flour, corn starch, potato starch, potato flour, sweet rice flour, almond flour, corn flour, amaranth flour, tapioca starch, soy flour, coconut flour and more. Once you figure out exactly the mix of flour, you must then add a "binder" like xanthan gum, chia seeds, or guar gum. Some mixes will produce products with a gritty feel and sour taste. Some will fall apart; others will be springy and dense (a hallmark of gluten free bread). Some (very few!) will be light and fluffy like wheat-based products.

As in the world of SAD (Standard American Diet), gluten-free foods have both healthy options and options that are void of nutrition. When choosing anything labeled gluten free, I always scope out the ingredient list. As with wheat-based products, you want to look for dead give-aways that the product is a health saboteur: hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, glucose-fructose, dextrose and other sugars (if you're going to eat something with sugar in it, at least make sure it's near the bottom of the ingredient list, so it's not one of the largest components of the recipe). Now, with gluten-free products, it's not as easy as avoiding the dreaded enriched wheat flour (a.k.a. flour-that-once-had-nutrition-which-was-stripped-out-and-partially-reinserted), you must now learn a whole new way of scoping out the label.

Here's how I decide whether to buy a gluten-free product: first, I find myself scanning the percentages of daily nutrients. Normally, non-health-food-store foods will tell you the amount of vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, and a few other key ones. You will also see the amount of protein and fiber in the product. Sometimes a product you buy at a specialty shop like a health food store will show you a bit more- you'll get to see how much manganese it gives you, and other nutrients that don't get much fanfare. Of course the label will also give you calories and fat content, but truthfully, I don't worry about those. It's not how many grams of fat or calories I worry about—it's where they come from.

So right away, I can see that many gluten-free products have zero protein, fiber, and listed vitamins. Seriously! This is a HUGE red flag, which often means the product has been made with starches so that the mix is white, fluffy and crunchy. However, this also means it is completely VOID of nutrition. Nothing. Zilch. Totally empty calories. Totally NOT worth it.

So after I look at the % of daily nutrients, I look at how many grams of protein and fiber a serving size of something has (also look for the serving size too, you want to know how much you're dealing with- sometimes it's for half a bun, or 1/4 cup of pretzels, etc). Without any protein or fiber, I also question how much starch has been used in the product.

My next stop is on the ingredient list. As you may or may not know, the ingredients are listed by order of quantity in the product—from largest to smallest. What I don't want to see first on that list is a starch. First and foremost, I want to see a flour- brown rice flour is an easy one, but I also love chickpea (garbanzo) flour or other bean flour, and almond flour. There is going to be a starch. That's life with gluten free cooking. Just look at the order of ingredients and do your best to choose a product that has more flours than starches. What I'm trying to avoid here is eating something super starchy (akin to white bread- shudder) that will affect my blood sugar, cause an insulin spike (because starch is quickly converted into glucose in the blood) and leave me feeling low and bloated. Yuck.

Good luck on your quest for the perfect foods. Write to me if you have any questions and I'll try to help you find some answers. :)


Post a Comment

Healthy food, healthy mind, healthy me Copyright © 2009 Designed by Ipietoon Blogger Template for Bie Blogger Template Vector by DaPino