The Stream of New Gluten-Free and Agave-Sweetened Foods Has a Downside

Last week Natural Products Expo West, the country’s largest natural, organic, and healthy products trade show, was marked by gluten-free products at virtually every turn and an astounding array of new products sweetened with agave nectar. The trends toward more gluten-free and agave-sweetened products both sound like positive developments, but consumers need to beware of the unadvertised pitfalls of these foods.

In the gluten-free category, there are now gluten-free breads, pizzas and other items that taste increasingly like the regular white-flour versions of these foods we on the Western diet grew up with. But with ingredients like white rice flour, hydrogenated oil, sugar, maltodextrin, corn starch and tapioca starch, is that a good thing? Sure, these gluten-free ingredients will prevent us from reacting to gluten, but there is another part of the nutrition picture that most people are missing. Refined flours, sweeteners and oils – whether gluten-free or not – set us up for weight gain, blood sugar problems and insulin resistance – conditions that are rampant in countries that eat the Western diet. People end up switching from white-flour Western foods to gluten-free Western foods and the trend the past several years has been that most gluten-free foods are being made out of processed, blood-sugar-spiking, insulin-resistance-promoting ingredients. With ingredients like white rice flour, white sugar and hydrogenated oil, it is no wonder why 82 percent of people who switch to a gluten-free diet gain weight. Research points to gluten sensitivity being far more common than most people realize. That means there is a huge need for quality gluten-free foods, but not for gluten-free junk foods that promote the very conditions we all need to prevent.

What is happening in the gluten-free movement reminds me a bit of what happened in the low-carb movement of five to seven years ago. “Low carb” was all the rage and food manufacturers responded to that by doing a harmful thing: They extracted most of the carbohydrates in wheat and concentrated the protein – which was the gluten – to make low-carb breads and pastas. People ended up developing new health problems from eating even more gluten in their low-carb food products (say, gas and digestive problems anyone?) and eventually the low-carb products went out of vogue.

Now food manufacturers are making ill-conceived gluten-free food products out of refined ingredients that we know contribute to degenerative disease. If we buy these more heavily refined gluten-free food products and eat them like most people eat white-flour products, we will simply end up trading one illness (gluten sensitivity) for another (overweight and insulin resistance). In time, it’s possible the gluten-free movement may fall out of favor, too, because people simply won’t experience good health when they eat the majority of gluten-free products now available. While I think that the gluten-free movement is truly needed, we can only support health with real food, not with so many fractionated, edible, food-like substances made to look like food. (Read more about this in what I wrote after attending last year’s Expo West in my article, “Focus on Real Food Instead of Trendy Imitation Food Products.”)

The other trend this year – agave-sweetened foods – at first seems like an improvement over foods sweetened with nutrient-void sugar. Agave nectar (also called agave syrup) is a relative new sweetener on the scene and there is a lot that we do not know about it. The reason agave nectar is highly touted is because it is low on the glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels like table sugar does. However, fructose is low on the glycemic index as well, but we know that rats fed a high-fructose diet develop insulin resistance in the liver, metabolic syndrome (a cluster of symptoms including large waist circumference, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, and insulin resistance) and type 2 diabetes. What most people do not know is that agave nectar is naturally high in fructose. Although an occasional dessert sweetened with agave syrup may be fine for many people, it is not good for people with insulin resistance. What is especially troubling, though, is that agave nectar is not just added to desserts; it is being added to all kinds of foods – ketchup, sauces, salad dressings, food bars, and more. If people begin eating agave nectar in many foods throughout the day, they are sure to develop new health problems. Consider this: Fruit is high in fructose but also high in nutrients, and a little bit of fruit is good for you (but of course fruit has fiber in it). However, a concentrated amount of fruit, especially in the more refined form of fruit juice, can contribute to new health problems, especially high blood triglycerides, an independent risk factor for heart disease, and also in some people to fructose malabsorption, a condition whose symptoms – bloating, gas, diarrhea, and stomach pain – mimic many of the symptoms of celiac disease.

Manufacturers tend to get on a kick with a new ingredient every few years. Today the ingredient that is added to a wide range of “health foods” is agave nectar. A few years ago it was fructose. Research eventually shed light on nasty health problems associated with eating concentrated amounts of fructose. But plenty of people, especially people with diabetes, ate a lot of fructose as a sweetener when eating it was the popular thing to do, not knowing that fructose was worsening their condition. So, consumers should always approach new ingredients, especially new sweeteners including agave syrup, with some skepticism and, if they choose to eat them, they certainly should not eat them with abandon.

While many food manufacturers make trendy products with fractionated ingredients that don’t promote health in many ways, the good news is there are manufacturers that make high-quality, health-enhancing foods. Want to know more on how to become a more savvy consumer, to not be fooled by marketing hype, and to choose the best gluten-free food products? Then become a member of the Going Against the Grain Group, a private group in which I cover health-promoting food products to help you eat against the grain healthfully. With more gluten-free options than ever before, it’s more important than ever to make smart choices.

© Copyright 2009 Melissa Diane Smith

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