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"Gluten-free" is everywhere--but it's not for everyone.

A few years ago, many of us had never heard of "gluten-free." These days, however, you can't walk through a grocery store or go to a popular restaurant without seeing the term "gluten-free" on labels, signs, and menus. If you have celiac disease, this is great news, as you now have many more options of what and where to eat.

However, many Americans have begun to assume the phrase "gluten-free" means the food in question is automatically healthy--which is not a safe assumption to make. Even folks who don't have celiac disease are gobbling up gluten-free goodies. But this isn't necessary--or even healthy.

Who needs gluten-free foods? Gluten-free foods were created for people diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease, also called "sprue," is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed or damaged when gluten-containing foods are eaten. This intestinal damage leads to poor absorption of a variety of nutrients, including fat, iron, folate, and calcium, which can lead to anemia, weight loss and bone softening. Following a gluten-free diet, which means excluding all wheat, rye, and barley, allows people with celiac disease to absorb nutrients properly--and lead a healthy life.

Diagnosing celiac disease. Like many food-related conditions, people have a tendency to diagnose themselves with celiac disease and then self-treat by choosing to follow a gluten-free diet. But in reality, a combination of tools is needed to properly diagnose the condition.

"These diagnostic tools include, but are not limited to, a thorough physical exam, discussion of medical history, a blood test that measures antibodies and potential nutrient deficiencies, and possibly a biopsy of the small intestine," says Lauren W. Kronenfeld, RD, a dietitian at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

The downside of gluten-free. Many grains and grain-based foods in the U.S. are fortified with iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid. Many gluten-free products are not fortified with these nutrients, and therefore may contribute to nutritional deficiencies. Gluten-free products tend to be more costly than gluten-containing foods, and many--cookies, cakes, crackers--are made with refined grains and score low in nutrients and high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium, just like their gluten counterparts. These foods would not be good choices in a healthy eating plan, gluten-free or not.

Be aware that you probably eat plenty of foods that are gluten-free, even though they're not labeled as such--for example, breakfast cereals made with rice or corn, and products that didn't contain any grains in the first place, such as potato chips and ice cream. Many of these gluten-free foods sport labels that trumpet their gluten-free status in order for food manufacturers to profit from the growing awareness and popularity of gluten-free foods.

How to know if it's healthy. Whether you need to eat gluten-free or not, it can be difficult to determine which grain-based foods are healthy. The best places to look for information are on the product's Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list.

Kronenfeld suggests you look for whole-grain products, which contain more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains, which have been stripped of their bran and germ during milling. The ingredients lists of wholegrain foods should have a whole grain, such as whole-wheat flour, oats, or barley, listed as the first ingredient. Whether you avoid gluten or not, when comparing products, such as cereals or crackers, choose those with the most fiber and least sugar. In addition, select products that are low in fat, saturated fat, and sodium, and high in vitamins and minerals.
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Title Annotation:FOOD TRENDS
Publication:Women's Nutrition Connection
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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