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Gluten-free does not equal healthy. How to buy coeliac-friendly food that's actually good for you.

These days it feels like everyone’s going gluten-free. And in fact, 30 per cent of us are reducing the amount of gluten in our diets, according to Coeliac Australia. That’s a huge number considering only 1 in 70 people have coeliac disease.

The high number of us going gluten-free can largely be pinned down to the rise in lifestyle-altering diets such as paleo and the growing use of the term “clean-eating”.

Somewhere along the line, ‘gluten-free’ became synonymous with ‘healthy’. Dietitian Caroline Trickey says that’s a problem, because gluten-free foods can often be the opposite.

Listen: 1 in 6 people are ACTUALLY gluten free. Some are pretending. Post continues after audio. 

“Many gluten-free products contain ingredients that are high GI and have empty calories,” the culinary nutritionist for gluten-free company The Food Crafters and Healthy Home Cafe says.

“Shoppers need to look closely at the labels on their food and determine the nutritional integrity of a product before adding it to the trolley.”

There are some healthy gluten-free foods out there of course. You just need to know what to look for next time you’re in the gluten-free aisle. To help, Trickey shares her tips for getting to the check-out with a healthy basket.

Know your calories and kilojules.

Trickey explains the term ’empty calorie’ means a food offers you (usually a lot of) energy, ie, kilojules or calories, for very little nutrition in return. So a gluten-free muffin might be packed with sugar and totally absent in complex carbs that are going to keep you fuller for longer.

“When you consume high GI, empty calorie foods, it is quickly converted into sugar which can easily be stored as fat, and ultimately lead to weight gain,” she says.

“In contrast, nutrient-dense low GI foods are metabolised more slowly, this can provide a more sustained release of energy and will keep you feeling full for longer.

“Nutrient-dense foods also provide your body with important nutrients like vitamins and minerals which help it function optimally and support important metabolic processes as well as immune function.”

Be aware of the replacement ingredient.

You may wish to rid wheat from your diet, but make sure you consider what it’s being replaced with.

“Gluten-free products use much higher GI, highly processed products to replace wheat flour like rice and corn flour, they also often include emulsifiers and stabilisers to enhance texture and flavour,” she says.

What’s ironic, is that some of these additives have been linked to gut issues – the very reason many people go gluten-free to begin with.

Gluten-free won't always be healthier than the alternative. (Image via Getty.)
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Trickey says you can easily avoid these ingredients by taking a quick look at the ingredient list on the packaging.  Anything you don't immediately recognise as food (ie, complex scientific name or a number) should act as a big red flag.

Instead, choose products that contain healthier ingredients such as coconut flour, almond meal and buckwheat.

"You may pay a little more for these, but your health is worth it!"

Learn to spot the good, the bad and the ugly.

"The gluten-free specialty aisle contains some of the most heavily processed foods in the grocery store," says Trickey.

It's not all bad though. There are some healthier, low GI, high fibre, gluten-free options that contain less sugar and include natural ingredients like dried fruit and no added preservatives, such as The Food Crafters cookie range.

"Use the nutritional label as your ultimate guide. It will provide you with all the information you need in order to choose a healthier product," Trickey says.

"Start by checking the ingredients list, then move onto the nutrition information panel, find the 100 gram column and compare gluten-free products."

Another hot tip: look for fibre, as this will only be listed if there's a decent amount of it.

"Also, remember to check sodium or salt content."

Balance is the key.

As slightly annoying as it may sound, if you care about your health (as most of us do), Trickey urges you to take the time to look at the labels, rather than blindly picking up any product that's marketed as gluten-free. The best thing is, when you've discovered the healthiest products, you can keep reaching for them. And when you feel like treating yourself, you can do that too.

"Anyone who follows a gluten-free diet, regardless of whether you have Coeliac disease, gluten-sensitivities or not, I encourage you to keep your health top of mind," she says.

"Be super-vigilant when selecting convenience packaged products and choose wisely."

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