Are Gluten Free Foods Loaded with Carbs?

While gluten free foods and diets may be top on the food industry’s list, it’s good to understand what gluten really is, where it’s found, and why the heavy carbohydrates seem to be included so frequently in this mix.

Have you ever felt the stickiness of dough, or of a bagel? That stickiness is the result of gluten, the protein contained in some grains, such as wheat (white bread too, also semolina, bulgur, couscous, malt, barley, and rye.) The word “gluten” comes from Latin for “glue” and for good reason. Gluten is the glue that sticks the proteins together to create that delicious bagel, or bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, cakes, cereals, pretzels, breading-even thickening agents use nature’s glue to stick all this tasty stuff together. And it sure sticks to your ribs too... They don’t call it “glue-ten” for nothing.

An estimated 3 million Americans have the immune disorder celiac disease, or an estimated 1 out of every 133 Americans. These are the consumers who spent over two and a half billion dollars last year on foods and beverages without gluten, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts, in Rockville, Maryland. (This amount is up from $210 million in 2001.) While celiac disease is considered genetic, it seems to be affecting more and more people each year. For some unknown reason, sufferers’ bodies perceive gluten in their food as an alien invader and launches an immune system attack on the intestines and other organs. Symptoms can range from diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue and headaches to malnourishment, osteoporosis, neurological conditions, and in some cases, infertility and cancer.

Some people may think, avoiding gluten in foods doesn’t necessarily translate into healthy foods. Read the labels and you’ll find that many are loaded with fiber-less grain replacements and heavy on the sugar. Foods that are without gluten are often thought to be low in carbohydrates simply because they lack wheat flour. Sure wheat flour is a source of carbs; but gluten-free foods often contain other ingredients that are just as high if not higher in carbohydrates than flour. One example is rice flour, found in many gluten-free recipes. Certainly rice flour does not have the glue-like substance contained in wheat flour; it does however, have its share of carbs- particularly white rice flour, which is quite high in carb content.

For sweetening, gluten-free recipes often call for honey and sugar, and may include high carb fruits. We all know that when avoiding carbs, you must try to avoid sugar-the epitome of empty calories. Including healthy high fiber greens and vegetables is on target for a low carbohydrate diet, but most fruits are a no-no. This makes gluten-free recipes that call for fruits like bananas are off limits to the low carb dieter.

Many of us also suffer from “Labelitis” or the inability to read food labels. It can be tricky trying to understand everything on a package these days. The product may say it’s both low-carb and gluten-free, which may be helpful to those who have celiac disease and on a low-carb diet to lose weight. But the trick is analyzing those carbohydrates to determine their source.

When the carbs come primarily from sugars, the food is not low-carb. If the carbs are from high level of dietary fibers, then they are probably good choices.

Watch out for gluten-free foods that use potato flour, which often has more carbohydrates than whole grain flours, or even wheat flour. You may be avoiding wheat gluten, but you’ll be getting a heavy dose of unwanted carbohydrates.

Here are some sneaky sources of gluten found in foods and other sources:

  • Malt (watch that beer!)
  • Modified food starch
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (TVP)
  • Dextrin
  • Soy sauce and flavorings
  • Instant coffee
  • Ketchup and mustard
  • Cake decorations (very sneaky)
  • Soups
  • Deli meats, sausages and hot dogs
  • Some vitamins and medications
  • Paste and glues on envelope flaps. Envelope flaps? Is nothing sacred?

But don’t despair-unless you enjoy munching on envelope flaps... Here are some foods that are both gluten-free and low in carbs, so enjoy!

You can eat all the vegetables under the sun. Veggies are naturally gluten-free, so choose the non-starchy vegetables to keep your carbohydrate intake low. (Avoid canned flavored vegetables and canned soup, which may contain wheat as part of the seasonings.)

Nosh on cheese for a gluten-free, low-carb diet (but some blue cheeses can contain traces of gluten, so use caution.) Enjoy cheese as a snack or add cheese to a salad, omelet or almost any dish.

Fish, poultry and meat are great protein sources that are naturally carbohydrate-free. (Always avoid packaged or seasoned meats that may contain gluten in the seasoning.) Beware of sneaky sauces-they can be hidden sources of gluten and carbs. Focus on fresh meat, fish or poultry, and you be the chef-that way you know if it’s suitable for your gluten-free, low-carb needs.

Nut and nut butters made from almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios, pecans and walnuts are delicious foods to add to your gluten-free, low-carb food list. Avoid dry-roasted and seasoned nuts that may contain traces of wheat and gluten. Natural nut butter is another good gluten-free and low-carbohydrate alternative.

And finally, dark chocolate-there is something sacred after all!!! Nibbling on good-quality dark chocolate, with at least 70 to 85 percent cocoa, is a delicious gluten-free and low-carb treat.

So don’t let these terms and labels drive you ‘round the bend. Remember: if the carbs come primarily from sugars, the food is not low-carb. If the carbs are from high level of dietary fibers, then they are probably good choices.

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