Making gains in gluten-free nutrition

by Jeff Gelski
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Gluten-free baked goods
Almonds may add protein, fiber and calcium to baked foods.

KANSAS CITY — As calls to enhance the nutritional profile of gluten-free products amplify, the possibilities of such improvements increase. Nuts, pulses and ancient grains, used both as ingredients and flour sources, may boost protein and fiber levels.

The sixth edition of a report on gluten-free foods in the United States published last year by Packaged Facts focused on nutrition. Pulses offer more fiber, protein and micronutrients than other gluten-free staples like rice and tapioca flour, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md.

“The appeal of ancient and sprouted grains is much like that of pulses,” Packaged Facts added. “For food processors, these ingredients provide whole food, plant-based protein sources that enhance appearance, deliver unique tastes and textures, pack a nutritional wallop and invite variety and innovation. A number of ancient grains are gluten-free, as are sprouted ingredients made from (gluten-free) ancient grains, nuts, seeds and beans.”

Nuts, pulses such as chickpeas, and ancient grains like buckwheat and quinoa are becoming more prevalent in flour but not dominating, said Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., founder and chief executive officer of Foodscape Group L.L.C., a Chicago-based company that serves as a “navigation partner” for its client companies involved in the food industry.

Gluten-free pasta
Quinoa may increase the protein content of gluten-free pasta.

“There are more and more of them out there, and they are more niche,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to suddenly blanket the baked goods aisle with sorghum and buckwheat.”

Dr. Cheatham said she has observed three phases of the gluten-free market over the past few years. At first, companies focused on removing gluten to make the food items suitable for people with celiac disease. The second phase focused on taste.

“Now, what I like to think is happening, is this desire to also optimize nutrition,” she said of the third phase.

Research presented in early March at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health 2017 Scientific Sessions focused on one health area. Eating more gluten was associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Researchers estimated daily gluten intake for 199,794 people in three long-term health studies. People in the highest 20% of gluten consumption had a 13% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared to people who had the lowest daily gluten consumption.

The researchers noted people who ate less gluten also tended to eat less fiber.

“We wanted to determine if gluten consumption will affect health in people with no apparent medical reasons to avoid gluten,” said Geng Zong, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fiber and other micronutrients, making them less nutritious, and they also tend to cost more. People without celiac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes.”

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