We've all got that friend—or perhaps we are that friend—who makes a point of clarifying that they made not standard penne but brown rice pasta last night, or that they opted for the gluten-free zucchini-raisin cookie at the local fancy bakery instead of the dastardly white flour version. And this friend has no known digestive issues or allergies that necessitate forgoing gluten—it's more just a subscription to the general idea that eating baked goods or carby foods made out of quinoa or almond flour is somehow a superior means of achieving a clear mind or maintaining buns of steels. Whether they're patting themselves on the back or expecting external praises isn't entirely clear, but the results for third parties usually lie somewhere between eye-rolling and personal guilt for not following suit.
But now, you may have a comeback to spew as chocolate chip cookie crumbs spray out of your mouth and all over your frenemy's rosemary amaranth scone.
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Those gluten-free pastas, muffins, and what have you aren't lower in calories, fat, or anything else that you're probably trying to avoid. They are lower in gluten—we'll give you that—but if you're the 99 percent of Americans who don't have celiac disease or the 82 percent who don't even have measurable sensitivity to gluten, that doesn't mean jack shit as far as your health goes.
Yeah, this idea is nothing new. But the results of a recent study really underline the concept.
The study, which comes from Australia's The George Institute for Global Health, examined more than 3,200 products across ten different categories of food to comprise the largest study of this type ever conducted on the continent. You've probably seen the entire half-aisle of gluten-free cookie mixes, crackers, and other items (since when does dried fruit need to be labeled as "gluten-free"?) in your local supermarket … but aside from offering options for those who become seriously ill from ingesting gluten—such as celiac sufferers—that region might just be a clever PR move for selling $11 boxes of cake mix.
Led by Dr. Jason Wu, researchers thoroughly compared the nutritional value of products marketed as gluten-free with their "conventional" counterparts, including breads, pastas, chips, cookies, crackers, and candy. The study found that the only notable difference in terms of "healthiness" between the types of products was that the gluten-free foods contained "significantly lower levels of protein"—but sugar and sodium levels were almost totally consistent. Put down the sorghum cheese crackers!
"There has been a tidal wave of gluten-free products coming onto the market in recent years and many people have been caught in the wash as they search for a healthier diet," Dr. Wu said in a statement. "The foods can be significantly more expensive and are very trendy to eat, but we discovered a negligible difference when looking at their overall nutrition."
He also warned of the "health halo effect," which is essentially a term for the messed-up psychology that makes us think we need to reach for something with a special, more "healthy" label without doing any type of research as to whether it actually offers any real benefits.
If you think someone's not laughing all the way to the bank at your ass opting for the more expensive "gluten-free water" rather than just drinking whatever comes out of the tap … well, sorry, sucker.
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Starting in 2014, companies have been legally permitted to label everything from vodka to celery to eggs as gluten-free, even if there's no reason for or history of any of those things containing wheat. Just something to be aware of, foolish sheeple.
"Misinterpretation by consumers, especially of junk foods, that 'gluten-free' means they are healthy is a real concern," Wu says. "Whole grains along with fruit and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, while highly processed junk foods should be avoided." Now pass the bread basket, for crying out loud.