Gluten-free isn’t necessarily healthful, speakers say

Corn tortillas
Many gluten-free products on the market sacrifice nutritional ingredients. Corn tortillas, though, are a good alternative.
(Los Angeles Times)

Kristine Kidd, who has celiac disease and has written a cookbook on gluten-free foods,  says she likes to use polenta, nut flours, buckwheat and the like — avoiding for the most part “white starches” that don’t contain wheat but don’t provide much nutrition.

She talked at the Gluten-Free Food Allergy Fest, put on by Gluten Free and More magazine in San Diego over the weekend, about how she adapted her repertoire once she learned she had to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. And for her, a former food editor at Bon Appetit magazine, there was a lot to change.

But Kidd says she’s a bit dismayed by many of the gluten-free products on the market. Too many try to mimic products with gluten at the cost of nutritional ingredients.

There are alternatives. “Instead of eating those breads with white starches, which are not particularly satisfying,” she recommends corn tortillas.


Kidd wasn’t alone at the festival; other speakers also told participants to watch for gluten-free products that don’t provide nutrients. While they spoke, there were dozens of booths at the expo offering food samples, and many of them contained just the ingredients the speakers were criticizing.

“The industry is for the most part catering to the people who just want to have what they always had” before they stopped eating gluten, Kidd said by phone on Tuesday, after the expo. “They could do better.”

Sometimes there’s an understandable motive. Kidd knows a woman whose child has celiac disease, and the child wants “all the things that the other kids have,” like pizzas and cupcakes. Many children on restricted diets feel left out at birthday parties or school.

“There are so many delicious and healthful ways to solve the problem if you are not aiming for an exact replacement,” says Kidd, who has a gluten-free baking book due out in the fall. In the recipes for that book, she says, she used some white starches (such as potato), especially for texture, but kept them as low as possible.


The gluten-free industry continues to grow, and while estimates vary, most put its sales last year in the billions of dollars; during a recent online panel by the food industry site Food Navigator, several experts said they expect several more years of robust growth.

At the show, she saw some products she thought looked good, including pastas made from buckwheat or black rice from Bgreen Foods, Kidd says she also likes some crackers made with almonds, and some brands of corn chips.

At the expo, Cabo Chips sampled yellow and blue corn chips made with five ingredients, including stone-ground corn.  Way Better Snacks used sprouted whole grains and seeds for its tortilla chips. And Explore Asian had pastas made with black beans, mung beans and brown jasmine rice, among other ingredients. People crowded around the samples of a new product called NutBurgers, made with cashews, sunflower seeds, brown rice and carrot juice.

Other products were for more occasional eating, speakers said.

“Gluten-free junk food is still junk food,” said Samantha Brody, a naturopath from Oregon who spoke about fatigue.

“There’s nothing wrong with a gluten-free muffin once in a while. But are they healthy for you? No, they are not,” said Tom O’Bryan, a nutritionist who spoke at the expo.

And Kim Rice, a wellness coach, said during her talk: “Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter