In a Gallup survey conducted in 2015, 17 percent of Americans said they tried to include gluten-free foods in their diets. That’s one in six! (1) According to Forbes, the number of people following gluten-free diets tripled between 2009 and 2017. (2)
Some of these folks know they have celiac disease, which affects about one percent of the population worldwide who are severely allergic to gluten, a sticky protein that occurs naturally in wheat, barley and rye. Others suffer from more common gluten intolerance symptoms or “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” which is roughly around 6 percent to 7 percent of the population. (3)
Meanwhile, many of us — including those who follow a Paleo Diet — are simply hoping to avoid foods that contain gluten because of the unwanted starchy carbohydrates, as well as genetically modified and processed grains that can cause inflammatory diseases, weight gain, bloating, cravings and more.
As a result, food manufacturers are trying to cash in on the gluten-free craze. According to studies done by a food industry research company called Packaged Facts, gluten-free food is projected to reach roughly $2 billion in sales by per year by 2020, a 20% increase from 2015. (4)
With the growing number of gluten-free options that are becoming available in grocery stores and even some chain restaurants, eating a gluten-free diet may seem more approachable than ever before. But here’s what we should be asking ourselves as consumers: while some companies may be transitioning to offering healthier or less allergenic varieties of their products, can we really trust these companies to handle such a move properly?
Gluten-Free at Dunkin Donuts?
In August 2018 Dunkin Donuts introduced its first-ever gluten-free bakery product, a $2 fudge brownie that will soon be available in all of Dunkin’s 8,500 stores within the United States.
According to a report by CNN Money, “The company is going through a major upheaval”, making changes like removing the “donuts” portion of its name in some new stores, changing its food offerings, and rolling out a new “Dunkin’ Run” menu that is meant to attract customers after the morning breakfast rush. (5) Dunkin recently released a statement that the company “recognizes the importance of providing alternative choices for people with dietary restrictions or who choose a gluten-free diet, which is why we’re pleased our new menu offers guests a gluten-free Fudge Brownie, which is so chewy and delicious we think everyone will love it.” (6)
It might seem promising that Dunkin Donuts is switching up their menu and thinking gluten-free, but when we take a closer look at their products, we see a very different picture. For example, other new items now being offered by Dunkin include waffle-breaded chicken tenders, pretzel bites, and ham and cheese roll-ups. And let’s not forget about “classic” Dunkin offerings like: sausage and cheese biscuit sandwiches, bagels and cream cheese, muffins, fritters, croissants, and a dozen different types of donuts (many of which contain more than 250-300 calories each).
Clearly the company is not concerned about offering healthy options overall, as much as they are about improving their image and attracting a wider audience. Case in point: the types of ingredients that are found in Dunkin’s products; their famous donuts (and most of their other products too) are made with dozens of highly-processed ingredients including: Enriched Unbleached Wheat Flour, Soybean Oil, Whey (a milk derivative), Defatted Soy Flour, Wheat Starch, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavors, Modified Food Starch, Corn Syrup, and many others. (7)
Dunkin is not the only chain pushing gluten-free products. Most fast food and fast casual restaurants now offer one or more gluten-free items — such as bunless hamburgers at Burger King, garden salads at McDonald’s, burrito bowls at Chipotle, and grilled chicken sandwich on gluten-free buns at Chick-Fil-A. (8) While choosing these items may mean you’re steering clear of gluten, this doesn’t mean they should be a regular part of your diet. As you’ll learn more about below, these processed foods are damaging for other reasons, including because they’re difficult to digest and linked to gut-related troubles.
The General Mills’ Cheerios Fiasco:
Another company that is now profiting from the gluten-free craze is General Mills, the maker of numerous cereal brands, now including gluten-free Cheerios. While I consider a bowl of Cheerios the definition of “empty carbs,” many people following gluten-free diets seem happy to have a supposedly “safe version” of their favorite childhood cereal. But not so fast.
In 2015 the FDA reportedly received complaints from 39 consumers who claimed they had gotten sick after consuming the new gluten-free Cheerios. (9) An October 5, 2015 press release from General Mills admitted the company’s gigantic gaffe, a mistake that was publicized all over the news.
After the company had to recall almost 2 million boxes of cereal that were labeled “gluten-free”, they reported the following: “We are embarrassed and sorry to share an incident that occurred at our production facility in Lodi, California, that allowed wheat flour to enter our gluten-free oat-based system. As a result, original and Honey Nut Cheerios produced on several dates may contain wheat and were wrongly labeled gluten-free.” (10) The company asked customers to check the “better if used by” code dates on Honey Nut Cheerios boxes to identify the mislabeled culprits.
General Mill continued, “We want to reassure you that this was an isolated incident and we have implemented a solution to ensure that this will not happen again.” Are you actually feeling reassured? Probably not.
Gluten-Containing Foods vs. Non-Gluten Foods
- There are several reasons that avoiding gluten can be more difficult than it seems. Besides big food companies making the occasional mistake (that can be life-threatening for some), manufacturing processes can sometimes lead to cross-contamination, in which trace amounts of gluten often wind up in food products that are seemingly gluten-free — like salad dressings, condiments, deli meats and candy.
I’ve found this creates either the paranoid consumer or the blasé one. Some avoid too many foods, such as thinking that rice and potatoes contain gluten and asking if oats are gluten-free (they are). Others are unaware that they’re consuming foods that contain gluten, including many processed foods, beer and even dietary supplements.
Food manufacturers can get into some hot water with the FDA for making mistakes like General Mills did, but keep in mind that the FDA inspects only a tiny fraction of the foods in stores and often relies on consumers to report problems. (11)
For a quick refresh, here’s a list of popular foods that contain gluten (and which may surprise you) and then a suitable non-gluten replacement:
- Granola: While most granola is supposed to be oat-based, many varieties have wheat gluten mixed in. So be careful and read that label. Or make up a bowl of oatmeal with steel-cut oats. Try my pumpkin pie oatmeal.
- Spelt Bread: Because it’s an ancient grain and is so healthy (helping our bones and circulation), spelt flour must be gluten-free, right? Wrong! Instead, there’s some other ancient grains that make great gluten-free flours, including almond flour, coconut flour and even teff.
- Ezekiel Bread: This bread made from ancient grains suffers the same fate as spelt, as it contains gluten. However, because it’s sprouted, it’s easier to digest than most breads and contains more nutrition, so I recommend it for the non-gluten sensitive if you really must have your bread fix with some almond butter. For those suffering from gluten intolerance or celiac disease, go with some healthy sandwich substitutes like collard wraps.
- Protein Bars: What?! Yes, most protein bars contain gluten to help with the consistency. Instead, make your own, such as this delicious almond butter banana protein bar.
- Couscous: Another innocent-looking ancient grain that is actually made from course grain, couscous is a no-no for gluten avoiders. Instead, go with brown rice or even black rice, which is called forbidden rice and will wow you with its health benefits.
- French Fries: Okay, I’m killing you now, right? Yes, I’m afraid to tell you that most French fries are dusted with flour before they’re frozen. Instead, make your own or even these tasty turnip fries.
- Ketchup and Mayonnaise: Many condiments, including ketchup and mayonnaise, may use gluten products as a stabilizer, flavoring or thickener. Instead, go with this crazy healthy but delicious coconut oil mayonnaise or homemade ketchup.
- Gravy: Wheat flour is the time-test thickener that your grandmother still uses, but fortunately there are other options now, such as this gravy recipe that uses gluten-free flour.
- Meatballs: Along with the thickener reasoning, gluten is often used to keep meatballs together. So get out your apron and make these gluten-free baked meatballs.
- Sausages and Hot Dogs: While some companies stopped the madness (!), some sausage casings and fillings still contain flour. Go with brands like Applegate Farms, which sells organic, certified gluten-free hot dogs made from turkey, chicken and beef. You can also try your local farmer’s market to speak directly with farmers selling thee products.
- Beer & Vodka: You knew about beer (hello barley!) but vodka? Traditionally, vodka is made from gluten-containing grains, but there’s a growing group of specialty vodkas made from alternative materials such as corn, potatoes and grapes. (12) Same story with beer, where gluten-free is a label that beer drinkers are seeking out. Yes, gluten-free alcohol is becoming a thing.
- Roasted Nuts: Okay, I take away your beer and now the bowl of nuts, too? If you’re trying to avoid gluten, then you also need to say no to roasted nuts, as they’re almost always made on shared equipment with gluten-containing products. Instead, bring your own raw nuts along for the ride, or roast them yourselves, such as these salty lime roasted nuts.
- Ice Cream: I had to go out with a bang with this list. “Ice cream?!” you scream. While it doesn’t make a lot of sense, many ice creams call for flour to help thicken the mixture. So check that label very carefully or make your own, such as this kefir-based strawberry ice cream or dairy-free raw vanilla ice cream.
What’s the best step to take? Stop eating these nutritionally bankrupt, packaged convenience foods that contain gluten from big companies. Keep seeking out real food from real people (if possible, your local farmers) as much as you can, and then cook it up yourself. Your family’s better health will be the happy result.
Foods with Gluten Hiding Inside
The biggest problem is that foods with gluten hide right in plain sight, often going overlooked and even being promoted as healthy food options. In reality, foods that contain gluten may damage the gut and can cause even further problems, particularly for people with gluten intolerance. Even if you don’t notice any obvious problems, consuming gluten puts your gut at risk for damage. So why eat it at all? I suggest steering clear of just about all foods with gluten.
The amount of gluten found in wheat has doubled in recent years, thanks to hybridized grain crops. Gluten may also be added as a filler and binding agent to many processed foods, including:
- artificial coffee creamer
- bouillon cubes
- chewing gum
- snack chips
- cold cuts
- fish sticks
- flavored teas
- hot dogs
- imitation seafood
- condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise
- rice mixes
- salad dressing
- soy sauce
- tomato sauces
- vegetable cooking sprays
- ground spices
Even if a processed food is labeled ” gluten free”, you might still read some head-scratching descriptions on the ingredient label such as:
Processed Foods with Gluten to Avoid
The list of foods with hidden gluten is long. The good news is there are ways to avoid them and heal your gut.
Below are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to foods/ingredients that can damage your gut:
- Baked wheat flour products — Wheat is the most commonly used grain and the predominant ingredient in everything from breakfast cereal to bagels to pasta, pizza and desserts. While it’s true that people have been baking and cooking with wheat for centuries, today’s wheat does not resemble the wheat of our ancestors. For the last 50 years, modern wheat has been hybridized, crossbred with other grains and species to increase yields, and sprayed with massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (The USDA Pesticide Data Program found traces of 16 pesticides on wheat our during a 2004 study.) (13) There’s been another cost to this hybridization process: fewer nutrients, more weight‐producing carbohydrates, and more gluten, phytic acid and amylopectin. In my opinion, our wheat consumption is the primary culprit of our country’s obesity epidemic.
- Canola oil and other vegetable oils — These are widely used in salad dressings and cooking oils are major culprits of gut dysfunction, as they have been shown to eviscerate many of our beneficial microbes. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming hydrogenated oils greatly increases inflammation throughout the entire body. (14)
- Deli meats — They’re loaded with gluten, hydrogenated fats and nitrites, which can lead to digestive troubles for many people. A 2008 study in Nutrition and Cancer demonstrated that people who consume processed meats have a greater risk of cancer, and in 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized processed meat as equivalent to cigarettes and asbestos in terms of cancer risk. (15)
- Microwave popcorn — This food is as safe as you might assume: A statement released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that microwave popcorn contains perfluorooctanoic acid, a synthetic chemical found in nonstick pans that’s been linked to cancer and hormone disruption. Very few people are aware of how the foods they eat affect their gut or create a constant tug‐of‐war between harmful bacteria and good bacteria inside their digestive tracts. We need to become more mindful that the foods of the modern world — even many of the ones we’ve long considered to be “healthy” — are making us sick.
Alternatives to Gluten-Containing Flours:
A lot of people have a hard time giving up breads and baked goods, but the good news is you don’t have to abstain from these foods with gluten forever just because you’re eliminating gluten from your diet. The key is to find a replacement for wheat flour. (Take note: I’m not saying it’s a good idea to just eat gluten‐free doughnuts. Sugary junk food is sugary junk food, gluten or no gluten!)
- Two gluten-free flours that I like and recommend to my patients are coconut and almond flour.
- Most people will do great with either of these flours, but for those with severe leaky gut, coconut flour is the best. I love the texture of coconut flour, which you can find in any natural grocery store. We enjoy making coconut flour blueberry muffins, coconut flour crepes, coconut flour chocolate chip cookies … you name it, you can make it with coconut flour.
- Coconut flour is high in fiber, protein and healthy fats. I also like that coconut flour scores low on the glycemic index and has more fiber and fewer carbohydrates than wheat flour. Made from ground and dried coconut meat, coconut flour isn’t like the household “flour” you grew up with, but it sure is healthier. A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that coconut flour’s high nutrient density can help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels in those with raised cholesterol levels. (16)
- If the texture of coconut flour isn’t to your liking, you can try almond flour. Sometimes I’ll use a combination of the two. Almond flour is high in protein, fiber and minerals and is best sprouted. Even though almond flour is healthy, I don’t recommend consuming more than a quarter cup total in a sitting because almond flour can be hard to digest in large amounts. What both coconut our and almond our offer is great versatility in recipes with the bonus of healthy nutrients and filling fats.
- When looking for gluten‐free grains, sprouted ancient grain flours (such as sprouted buckwheat, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa or millet flour) can also be a good option for those with mild to moderate leaky gut. Sprouted corn, sprouted gluten-free oats and sprouted rice our are other possible substitutes for baking.
- Sprouting grains also makes them easier to digest for people with gluten sensitivities. In a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, researchers sprouted wheat kernels for up to one week while analyzing them at different stages to observe the changes in gluten concentrations and nutrient levels. (17) They found that sprouting the wheat decreased the gluten proteins substantially, while increasing dietary fiber by 50 percent. When choosing bread, look for the term “sprouted” on the label.
- I don’t eat bread very often, but when I do, I like Ezekiel bread, which is extremely high in fiber. Organic sourdough breads can be healthy and nutritious as well.
How Gluten Contributes to Leaky Gut
Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, spelt and barley, is derived from the Latin word for “glue,” which makes sense because this sticky, gooey protein acts like an adhesive to hold foods together. Gluten in a flour‐and‐water mixture gives dough its elastic qualities and allows bread to rise during the baking process. Yet we lack the specific digestive enzymes to fully break down and absorb gluten. Large blocks of undigested protein find their way into the small intestine, where they slow the absorption of other valuable nutrients.
I believe gluten is a key reason for our nation’s autoimmune crisis, with clear, documented links to diseases like celiac disease, type 1 diabetes and Crohn’s disease. Gluten is associated with autoimmune disease and food allergies and may be a major trigger for several thyroid conditions, including Hashimoto’s disease. (18) A study at the University of Turin in Italy also demonstrated a strong link between celiac disease, caused by gluten, and the health of the thyroid. (9)
The unrelenting surplus of excess sugars; unsprouted, hybridized grains; and other nutritionally bankrupt, processed foods in the standard American diet has simply devastated the gut. Of particular concern is gluten, which evidence increasingly points to as a prime driver of leaky gut syndrome. When foods with gluten are consumed, the body undergoes an inflammatory response and eventually releases the protein — zonulin — that unlocks the epithelial tight junctions and keeps the gates of the gut wide open as long as it circulates in the blood. (19)
Our immune systems view gluten as foreign bacteria and react en masse, causing collateral damage to the intestinal wall in the process, creating the perfect conditions for zonulin to unlock the wall’s tight junctions. As you learned earlier, those gluten molecules sail right through the intestine, priming us for a variety of diseases and digestive troubles.
Phytic acid is considered an “antinutrient” — a naturally occurring substance found in plant foods that blocks the absorption or proper functioning of other nutrients in the body. This mineral binder prevents our bodies from absorbing key bone‐building nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc, which creates nutrient deficiencies and reduces the digestibility of starches, proteins and fats. It can be found on the bran of all grains as well as the outer coating of seeds and nuts, and is an enzyme inhibitor. When grains are unsprouted and unfermented, the phytic acid can irritate the intestines and cause leaky gut.
Grains also contain amylopectin, which has been called a “super carbohydrate” for its ability to increase blood sugar faster than other carbohydrates. (In this case, “super” is not a good thing.) The molecular structure of amylopectin causes this starch to be more easily digested than other complex sugars, which raises blood sugar levels faster than you can say, “Sure, I’ll have a sandwich.”
In a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, participants were given a diet that was 70 percent amylopectin or 70 percent amylose, a different but healthier “resistant” starch that isn’t as quickly digested as amylopectin. Because it takes longer to break down, amylose is fermented by bacteria in the large intestine similar to how some types of fiber are broken down — a process that limits spikes in blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol and feeds the beneficial bacteria in the colon. (20)
Foods rich in amylose tend to have a low glycemic index: fruits, vegetables, salads and organic whole‐grain products. In contrast, foods with amylopectin have a high glycemic index: white breads, starchy potatoes and sugary desserts. The study found that those on the amylopectin diet had high glucose and insulin responses after a meal, which led to fat storage on the body, specifically in the abdominal area, otherwise known as belly fat. Stick with the amylose!
Gluten, Zonulin & Autoimmune Disease
Zonulin is a protein that signals the tight junctions to open and close — the only known substance in the body to do so. By controlling zonulin, scientists can open and close the tight junctions almost at will. At this point, we know of two things that can trigger the release of zonulin in the small intestine: exposure to bacteria and exposure to gluten. (21)
Infections in the gut have long been suspected as a cause of the allergic, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases associated with leaky gut. Researchers discovered that when the small intestine is exposed to any infection, it secretes zonulin in response, which then basically opens the door of the tight junctions. In other words, it’s possibly the zonulin, not the bacteria themselves, that directly triggers intestinal permeability.
For millennia, this zonulin response was an essential part of the body’s defense mechanism — it was a way of pushing out the bad bacteria we may encounter, such as salmonella. But our modern world has drastically increased the number of triggers for zonulin, leaving the gates of our gut wide open. What was once a very healthy (and fleeting) immune system response has morphed into a never‐ending cascade, causing our bodies to become chronically inflamed and vulnerable.
Many of the autoimmune conditions linked to leaky gut have a genetic component, yet researchers have determined that less than 10 percent of those with the genes for an autoimmune disease actually develop it. So why do some people with those genes get sick while others don’t? The answer, put simply, is our environment. That’s why the choices we make every day — the food we eat, the products we use, the stress levels in our lives, the pills we take — can make the difference between illness and health. These are all toxic microexposures that can lead to zonulin release. And these are all things, unlike genetics, that are usually within our control.
The two most significant environmental factors when it comes to the release of zonulin are:
- The increase of gluten in our food supply: The hybridization of wheat, as well as its inclusion in almost all processed food products, has vastly increased our consumption of gluten, which creates conditions in the body that encourage a near‐constant release of zonulin.
- The increase in antibiotic usage: The rise of antibiotic medications, hand sanitizers, chemical cleaners, medications and other microbe killers has decimated our microbial diversity. Imbalances in our microbiome have led to increases in the sheer number of bacteria crowding into our small intestine, which continues to trigger zonulin’s gate‐opening mechanism. These are just some of the reasons that antibiotic resistance develops and antibacterial overkill causes harm.
Celiac Disease & Gluten:
Celiac is the autoimmune condition with the clearest link to leaky gut. The zonulin released by gluten opens up the tight junctions of the gut lining and lets the gluten out into the bloodstream. Whereas the majority of us might need multiple exposures of gluten before the inflammatory response kicks in, for those with a genetic tendency for celiac disease symptoms, the immune response is triggered immediately and can have severe, even life‐threatening consequences.
But once gluten is removed from the diet, celiac can be resolved quickly. Zonulin decreases, the tight junctions close up and the markers for autoimmunity antibodies start to decrease. (22) With total abstention from all gluten, the autoimmune process shuts off, and the leaky gut — the main focus of celiac’s autoimmune response — can begin to heal completely.
While people with celiac disease experience an extreme immune response, even those with a gluten sensitivity are likely to struggle with leaky gut. A study at the University of Bologna found that people with nonceliac gluten intolerance had almost as much circulating zonulin as those with celiac disease. (23) Even if you don’t have celiac disease, chronic exposure to gluten can harm the gut. That’s why you want to avoid foods with gluten as much as possible.
Key Points About Avoiding Foods with Gluten
- Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, spelt and barley. This sticky, gooey protein acts like an adhesive to hold foods together and gives dough its elastic qualities which allows bread to rise during the baking process. Yet we lack the specific digestive enzymes to fully break down and absorb gluten. Large blocks of undigested protein find their way into the small intestine, where they slow the absorption of other valuable nutrients.
- Foods with gluten are hiding in plain sight, and consuming too many can lead to a plethora of autoimmune disorders, especially leaky gut syndrome. That’s why you want to avoid them!
- While avoiding foods with gluten may seem like a daunting task, it’s more than doable. However, you must make sure to read all labels and opt for sprouted grains and gluten-free options instead of traditional wheat products.
- Of course, you should avoid processed foods that are loaded with gluten and many other unhealthy, toxic ingredients, and instead opt for healthier, organic, whole foods over foods with gluten hiding below the surface.
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