Enriching Gluten-Free Products Doesn’t Make Them “Healthy”

December 20, 2011  Author: Julie McGinnis M.S., R.D.

The Standard American Diet, otherwise referred to as S.A.D., consists of low quality factory farmed meats, over-processed packaged foods with vitamins and minerals added back in, condiments, and a leaf of iceberg lettuce as the vegetable for the day—SAD indeed.

Packaged processed foods made with enriched white flour, like cereals, crackers, pasta, snacks, and bread, make up a large part of most American diets. In fact, Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals should “consume 3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole grain products per day, with the rest of the recommended grains coming from enriched or whole-grain products. In general, at least half of the grains should come from whole grains.”

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals consume at least one-half of all their grains as whole grains (i.e. 3 servings/day; 1 serving = 16 g; about two table spoons). However, dietary intake data from the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes and NHANES indicates that the average whole grain intake is 1 serving/day, with 95% of Americans not meeting their whole grain daily intake recommendations.

How did Americans end up eating only one serving of whole grain a day? First let’s define whole grain. According to the Whole Grains Council: “Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed.”

One serving of whole grain per day happened because food manufacturers tricked consumers into believing that highly processed wheat flour (enriched white flour) is an equal alternative to whole grain flour—which is not the case. To improve its shelf life, white flour has been stripped of all its nutrients and then “enriched” with a few vitamins and minerals to make it appear like a healthy option.

Processed foods like white flour are frequently “enriched” and “fortified.” In “enriched foods,” the nutrients are removed during the initial processing, then later in the process, synthetic nutrients are added back. With “fortified foods,” additional nutrients that were not originally in these foods are added to make the food appear more nutritious. For instance, most of us have had vitamin D fortified milk or calcium and vitamin D fortified orange juice. Vitamin D and calcium do not occur naturally in OJ.

When you buy enriched or fortified products, you are purchasing products that contain cheap vitamins and minerals that are poorly absorbed by the body. Only small amounts of the removed nutrients are replaced, and the synergy between these nutrients is lost. Food in its natural form contains protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals—all of which are present for a reason. These nutrients work together harmoniously in the food and in our bodies.

While enriching and fortifying foods may sound like a good idea, adding back the vitamins and minerals that were removed in processing will never recreate the benefits of eating whole grain foods. Bottom line: You can’t fool Mother Nature; you also can’t fool your body.

One of the biggest problems with processed food is that many of the healthy nutrients taken out during manufacturing are simply lost. For instance, when whole grains are refined, the bran and the coat of the grain are often removed—and with them go nutrients like fiber, antioxidants, oils, lignins, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. During the enrichment process, a few of these nutrients are artificially added back. But even after enrichment, the final product is almost always less nutritious than the whole grain you started with.

For example, take whole grain wheat flour compared to white enriched unbleached flour (see the chart below). Processing the whole grain flour reduced the amount of all minerals, except iron, which was added back in to enrich the flour. The iron content is slightly higher in the enriched flour, but the synthetic form of iron used in enriched flour, ferric orthophosphate, is not easily absorbed by the body, so it is essentially worthless. (See below for more information about this issue.) And check out the fiber content—dramatically reduced in the white flour product.

Minerals

whole-grain

white enriched unbleached


Calcium, Ca (mg)

40.800

18.750

Iron, Fe (mg)

4.656

5.800

Magnesium, Mg (mg)

165.600

27.500

Phosphorus, P (mg)

415.200

135.000

Potassium, K (mg)

486.000

133.750

Sodium, Na (mg)

6.000

2.500

Zinc, Zn (mg)

3.516

0.875

Copper, Cu (mg)

0.458

0.180

Manganese, Mn (mg)

4.559

0.853

Selenium, Se (mcg)

84.840

42.375

Fiber (gm)                        15                                                    3

 

One big advantage to eating foods in their whole unprocessed form is that you are getting the natural synergy of all the nutrients together. Michael Pollan introduces the idea of “food synergy” in his book, In the Defense of Food. Webster’s Dictionary defines synergy as, “The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.”

This definition was proven in a May 2011 study in the Journal of Nutrition. Researchers observed that consuming whole grains reduces mortality from all causes. However, when scientists “identified” all the beneficial nutrients in whole grain, they could not explain why these beneficial effects occurred. The scientists concluded that, “the various grains and their parts interact synergistically.”

In addition to synergy, the types of vitamins and minerals added back in to enrich or fortify processed food products are often cheap substitutes for the real thing. If the vitamins and minerals that are bound to inexpensive and unabsorbable ingredients, they do the body no good. A small portion of these added nutrients are absorbed by the body, but certainly not to the extent that is stated on the label. For instance, the vitamin D found in fortified milk is vitamin D2, also known as ergocalciferol. This form of vitamin D is less potent and absorbable than vitamin D3. According to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) should not be regarded as a nutrient suitable for supplementation or fortification. The same also applies to the B vitamins and other minerals used in enrichment and fortification of foods. Not only have processed foods lost the interactions between ingredients that occur naturally in whole foods, but the synthetic nutrients used to enrich these food products are poorly absorbed by the body.

Another concern with enriched flours and gluten-free products not made from whole grain flours is their effect on blood sugar levels. Enriched flour products and gluten-free flour products that lack whole grains tend to be higher on the glycemic index. In contrast, foods made from whole grains tend to be lower on the glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI; carbohydrates that break down more slowly, gradually releasing glucose into the bloodstream, have a low GI.

Whole grain flours contain higher amounts of fiber, protein, and fat, which slow down the digestive process and reduce the rate at which sugars enter the bloodstream. This moderated increase and decrease in blood sugar results in a lower glycemic index and allows for better insulin control and blood sugar balance. A diet containing primarily low glycemic index foods is responsible for many health benefits: reduced cholesterol levels, reduced risk of heart disease, lower incidence of cancer and type 2 diabetes, and healthy weight loss.

In the case of many gluten-free food products (breads and pizza in particular), white flours and starches are used to supplement whole grain flours. For example, instead of just using whole grain flour such as brown rice flour or buckwheat flour, many manufacturers cut corners by adding less expensive white rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, and corn starch.  The result is unhealthy gluten-free products that are low in fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, alpha linoleic acid, lignins, phytochemicals, and other nutrients—and high in calories and simple carbs.

Why would food manufacturers encourage the gluten-intolerant community to heal and nourish their bodies on inferior, unhealthy products? The obvious answer is money, which is all the more reason why consumers of gluten-free foods need to become better educated about the products they purchase.

As a nutritionist, the word “frustration” doesn’t begin to explain how I feel about the creation of nutritionally void gluten-free products. Let’s just say it was strong enough that I created my own line of whole grain gluten-free products.

Eating enriched foods (gluten-free or otherwise) is not a healthy choice. The promise of added vitamins and minerals may sound like a good idea, but as Gertrude Stein said once, “There’s no ‘there’ there.” The low quality vitamins and minerals added back in do not compare to the natural ones that were removed. Removing the fiber, protein, and good fats raises any food’s glycemic index and reduces the benefits found in whole foods, such as whole grains.

Eating nourishing food every day is one choice you can make that will create an immediate difference in your overall health and in how you feel. If you are looking to improve your health by eating better, then you need to make smart choices.

Follow these points to eat whole grain:

  • If you eat wheat, look for whole wheat products and avoid the enriched white flour ones. Be skeptical, even if the packaging says it contains “whole grain wheat products” because it may only contain a very small amount. Please visit Whole Grains Council’s Whole Grains 101 page for more information.
  • If you eat gluten-free, find products with ingredients using whole grain flours or packaging that says 100% whole grain.

Here is a list of gluten-free whole grains and whole grains that contain gluten:

Gluten Free Whole Grains Whole Grains that Contain Gluten
Amaranth Barley
Buckwheat Bulgur
Corn (whole cornmeal and popcorn) Cracked Wheat
Millet Durum
Oats (oatmeal), find gluten-free oats Einkorn
Quinoa Emmer
Rice (brown and colored) Farro
Sorghum (milo) Kamut®
Teff Rye
Wild Rice Spelt
Triticale
Wheat
Wheat berries

 

About The Author: Julie McGinnis M.S., R.D.

avatarJulie McGinnis, MS, RD, has been involved in the field of nutrition for twenty years and started work in a conservative hospital setting as a registered dietitian. Her company, The Gluten Free Bistro, is the culmination of years of nutrition experience and living gluten-free combined with a genuine desire to provide a nutritious product for the celiac and gluten intolerant communities. Visit Julie McGinnis at www.theglutenfreebistro.com
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About the author:  Julie McGinnis, MS, RD, has been involved in the field of nutrition for twenty years and started work in a conservative hospital setting as a registered dietitian. Her company, The Gluten Free Bistro, is the culmination of years of nutrition experience and living gluten-free combined with a genuine desire to provide a nutritious product for the celiac and gluten intolerant communities. Visit Julie McGinnis at www.theglutenfreebistro.com


About the author:

avatar

Julie McGinnis, MS, RD, has been involved in the field of nutrition for twenty years and started work in a conservative hospital setting as a registered dietitian. Her company, The Gluten Free Bistro, is the culmination of years of nutrition experience and living gluten-free combined with a genuine desire to provide a nutritious product for the celiac and gluten intolerant communities. Visit Julie McGinnis at www.theglutenfreebistro.com

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