Many would-be healthy eaters are now seeking out gluten-free products, as are – by medical necessity – the 1 percent or so of the U.S. population with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten can damage the small intestine and other organs. Sales of gluten-free foods are growing rapidly, amounting to an estimated $4.2 billion in 2012, and are expected to hit $6.6 billion in 2017.
But swapping in a gluten-free version of your favorite snack isn't the same as eating well. Depending on the products you choose, you may not be cutting carbs at all – and could even be opting for carbs that are worse for you. "If somebody is choosing a gluten-free version of a cracker or a bread product or a pasta product and they're thinking that it's going to be healthier just because it's labeled gluten-free, that is a huge mistake," says dietitian Tricia Thompson, author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide.
Always take a look at the ingredients, she says. If you see milled corn flour, white rice flour, or a starch (usually corn, potato, or tapioca) as the first ingredient, that product probably is high on the glycemic index and doesn't have much fiber – bad news for a balanced diet. Carbs aren't the only catch. Gluten-free products also often have additional fat (and therefore calories) compared to their wheat-containing counterparts. "Manufacturers may add more fat to a product to improve the mouthfeel, so that it will taste more similar to a gluten-free version," Thompson says. That gluten-free label, in other words, isn't a free pass to the baked-goods aisle. "Junk is junk, regardless of whether or not it's labeled gluten-free." Here are some gluten-free products that aren't high on the health food list, and the ingredients that don't sit well with aspirations of a healthy diet.
The gluten-free craze has some brands adding labels to products that have actually never had gluten. Frito-Lay started the process of labeling its gluten-free products in May 2012 and lists them all online. Yes, your Cheetos, Fritos, and Tostitos are gluten-free. But you didn't consider them health food before. A gluten-free label shouldn't make you start now.
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