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?
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 and 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.
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.
- 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.