It’s amazing how much sugar you can find dumped into gluten-free baked goods. Sugar has some leavening qualities, so helps to improve the texture as well as mask the taste of other ingredients in these foods (if you can tolerate that level of sweetness). Yet I continue to be baffled as to why bakers believe that, while consumers are avoiding one ingredient that’s harmful to their health, they’d be happy to overindulge in an equally harmful ingredient instead. Scientists and researchers now understand that sugar is a neurotoxin (7), and it also feeds bad bacteria in the gut (8) as well as fungi (especially Candida Albicans (9)), which can cause all kinds of unpleasant symptoms, to say nothing of what it can do for obesity, cardiometabolic disease, and diabetes. (10, 11, 12, 13).
- Gums and emulsifiers
Gums and emulsifiers, such as xanthan gum, guar gum, cellulose gum, lecithin, and carrageenan are other ingredients that can make trouble. Think of the “glue” in “gluten,” and that tells you why other glue-like gums are often used in gluten-free foods: they make the ingredients stick together smoothly, and are designed to improve the mouth-feel in mass-produced foods. Gums sneak into far more than baked goods too, such as non-dairy milks, salad dressings, and ice cream – a lot of things you wouldn’t think need “gum” – kind of like, well, gluten does. Gums in gluten-free foods are hard to avoid.
- Cellulose gum, according to Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, “is known to cause massive bacterial overgrowth, damage to the mucus barrier of the small intestine and inflammation in the small intestine in animals, hallmarks of Crohn’s disease. Here’s a quote from a 2009 paper in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: “[carboxymethyl cellulose] is an ideal suspect to account for the rise of IBD in the 20th” (14)
- Chris Kresser, on the other hand, who is a global leader in the fields of ancestral health, Paleo nutrition, and functional and integrative medicine, does note that guar gum can be “difficult to digest, especially for people with digestive problems (1 in 3 Americans, from the latest statistics). In [his] clinical experience, many patients with gut issues improve when they remove guar gum from their diet.” He ranks carrageenan above gums in being problematic, however, and also notes that “the overall quality of your diet is far more important than how well you avoid these additives.” (15, 16).
Gelatin is often used in AIP recipes, which provides a nutritional and healing boost as well as effective binding for baked goods.
- Bad oils and fats
For years, we’ve been told by doctors and reporters to avoid saturated fats because of cardiovascular health concerns. With better research methods and the relentless search for better nutrition for improved health, we now know that this advice was misplaced (17), since the brain needs fat for fuel (18), and saturated fats are stable in cooking. In fact, low-fat diets have recently been proven to increase the risk of death (19), while foods high in good fats are the basis of the Keto diet (20), which is designed for optimal brain health.
But are all fats the same? No, they are not. Dr. Mark Hyman explains:
“Gluten-free products are also often filled with a deadly fat, such as processed vegetable oils or hydrogenated oils and trans-fats. These clear, tasteless, highly refined and processed oils include corn, soybean, canola, safflower and sunflower oils. Like sugar, these inflammatory omega-6 fats crank up inflammation while blocking anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.” (21)
This is often why functional medicine practitioners emphasize omega 3 fat supplements: to help counterbalance the typical modern diet and help ensure the right balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids.
While saturated fats are the best kind of fat to cook and bake with because they don’t oxidize (go rancid) at higher cooking temperatures, what is typically found in gluten-free packaged foods are unsaturated, easily-oxidized fats such as processed oils, hydrogenated oils, and industrial seed oils (canola, cottonseed, corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut, and grapeseed oil. Add to this the long shelf life of these foods and you have oxidized or “rancid” oils can cause that cellular and immune damage. (22)
- Cross-reactive grains, grain substitutes, and dairy
Cross-reactive ingredients can often be found in gluten free foods. A cross-reactive ingredient is one that your body thinks is gluten, even though it’s not. This means that you might not be eating gluten anymore, but your body thinks you are, because the signature of that food is similar to gluten. So, your immune system, which remembered the gluten profile, attacks that food with the similar signature. This is a particular risk with grains, but also other foods, as well. A recent study published in Nutrients journal summarizes:
“…Cereal grains contain “anti-nutrients,” such as wheat gluten and wheat lectin, that in humans can elicit dysfunction and disease. In this review, we discuss evidence from in vitro, in vivo and human intervention studies that describe how the consumption of wheat, but also other cereal grains, can contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases by increasing intestinal permeability and initiating a pro-inflammatory immune response.” (23)
Dr. Sarah Ballantyne further explains:
“What happens in cross-reactivity? In this case, the amino acid sequence that an antibody recognizes is also present in another protein from another food (in the case of molecular mimicry, that sequence is also present is a protein in the human body). There are only 20 different amino acids, so while there are millions of possible ways to link various amount of each amino acid together to form a protein, there are certain amino acid sequences that do tend to repeat in biology.
The take home message: depending on exactly what antibody or antibodies your body forms against gluten, it/they may or may not cross-react with other foods. So, not only are you sensitive to gluten, but your body now recognizes non-gluten containing foods as one and the same. Who needs to worry about this? Any of the estimated 20% of people who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, i.e., have formed antibodies against gluten.” (24)
The list of potential cross-reactive foods can get long quickly. Top on the list are dairy, corn, and soy but also, potentially, rice and white potato. Handily, none of these foods are included in a Paleo diet or the elimination phase of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), so if you choose those dietary protocols, you’re covered. Some of those foods can also potentially be added back in small amounts as you reintroduce foods, if desired, and if no adverse reaction is observed. You can learn more about why grains can have a long-term detrimental effect on health from a variety of functional medicine celebrities; Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s explanation is accessible here.