“Gluten-free” labels are popping up in every aisle of the grocery store on foods from cereal to peanut butter, pasta and soup, and baking mixes. Many stores even have gluten-free sections. But don’t be fooled into thinking foods without gluten are always better for you.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It helps dough rise and keeps bread from falling apart, makes it chewy, and adds to its flavor. It’s often added to other foods, like cakes, cereals, and pasta, to improve their texture.
Most people can eat gluten. If you don’t need to avoid it, then you can choose from a wider variety of foods in order to eat a well-balanced diet.
But gluten is off-limits for some people, such as those who have celiac disease. For those people, gluten can damage their intestines. According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease affects 1% or less of the US population.
People who have gluten-sensitivity or the skin disorder dermatitis herpetiformis can also benefit from going gluten-free, according to Mayoclinic.org. And a gluten-free diet may help some people with irritable bowel syndrome, the neurological disorder gluten ataxia, type 1 diabetes, and HIV-associated enteropathy.
Just because something is gluten-free doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthier. Some gluten-free foods can be higher in fat, sugar, and total calories and lower in fiber and vitamins than the regular versions. In the US, most wheat products are enriched with folate, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. Foods made with gluten-free flours are not.
People who can’t eat gluten need to read food labels to find the most nutritious options. Gluten-free whole grains, such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, teff, millet, corn, and rice are good natural sources of folate, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron — as well as protein and fiber.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
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