Nutrition Action Healthletter kindly keeps sending me issues, even though my subscription was supposed to have run out at least a year ago. The September 2011 issue contains a special Gluten Free section. In this blog post, I’d like to take NAH to task for their one-page article “Gluten Free-For-All,” an examination of why people buy gluten-free processed foods and what these foods are composed of, and a shaming of several brands of packaged food, all nicely framed in a tight single page.
NAH reports that, according to a 2010 survey, nearly half of respondents “said that they avoided gluten because gluten-free foods were ‘generally healthier.’ Another 30 percent said they did it to manage their weight. And 22 percent thought gluten-free foods were ‘generally higher quality.’”
The article disses the GF junk foods, saying that while their newfound abundance on the market is “a plus for gluten-intolerant people who want an occasional splurge, the healthiest diets have room for a mere teaspoon of added sugars and just four or five small slices of bread or half-cup servings of (whole-grain) cereal, pasta, or other grain foods per day. Better to get your carbs from vegetables, fruits, and beans.” This seemingly innocuous statement is where NAH begins to lose me. They skip right past, and in doing so downplay, that occasional, harmless splurge of gluten-intolerant and celiac people.
Once they begin dissing the folks who make my favorite GF delights, they completely lose me. I don’t agree with shaming the producers of “gluten-free foods that may look ‘generally healthier’ than they really are.” Now, NAH and I have beef, and I would like to set the record straight and praise the companies who might allow me to have a cupcake when everyone else has a cupcake, pasta when I’m craving vodka sauce.
Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse Vanilla Cupcakes. I haven’t had a cupcake in months. The last cupcake I had was purchased from the gluten-free frozen section at QFC. It was good–way better than I could bake if I tried, I’m sure, judging from my failed attempts at GF baking. After spending more than a hundred dollars, I finally have all the flours I need to create all-purpose mixes for various baking experiments, but I’d really rather leave that to the professionals. Even Elizabeth Barbone of Serious Eats writes of GF cupcake-baking, “You think it’d be easy: gluten-free flour, sugar, eggs, and fat. Simple, right? Not the case! I’ve created more flops of white cakes than just about anything else (including gluten-free bread).”
Is NAH prepared to say that, really, nobody should ever get to eat a cupcake, even on a special occasion? Gluten-fed people can pop into Cupcake Royale for an indulgence. They can take three bites and stop. They can share with a friend. They can have a cupcake for a birthday. Thanks to Whole Foods and other manufacturers of gluten-free cupcakes, we can have cupcakes, too. Cupcakes, by nature, are not healthy. Drop it. And thanks for letting me know where to get a cupcake for my 27th birthday. I’ll keep the other three in the freezer.
Glutino Yogurt-Covered Pretzels. Maybe Glutino is guilty of a little b.s. here. I used to live on pretzels. Since going GF, I stopped craving them, but it’s good to know that if I want them, Glutino can supply. Again, this is a way for us to eat what the rest of you get to eat. My quick Google search revealed that it’s hard to accomplish the yogurt-dipped-pretzel trick satisfactorily at home using real yogurt, and as far as I can tell, Glutino is the only brand that makes GF yogurt/chocolate-covered pretzels. I’ve only bought GF pretzels twice in 2011, but I’m glad I have the option.
And, really, NAH, yogurt-dipped pretzels are, in general, a load of crap. They’re all masquerading as health food. Don’t single out Glutino. Their pretzels are splendid.
Bionaturae Organic Gluten Free Fusilli. Okay, we have a problem. NAH takes Bionaturae to task for their use of “wheat pasta” instead of “white pasta,” but Bionaturae said exactly what they meant—this stuff doesn’t taste like rice flour, it doesn’t taste like potato starch or soy flour, it tastes like plain old wheat pasta. I suppose, to be specific, it does have a texture closer to that of white pasta, and is more nutritionally comparable to it, but I’m nearly certain that Bionaturae is writing to consumers like me when they write on their website, “You no longer have to sacrifice great taste and texture to get a delicious gluten free pasta meal.” We miss the stuff sometimes, and this is close. I’m sure they don’t mind purchases from consumers without gluten issues, but I don’t think they’re working for an empty health angle here.
NAH recommends Lundberg pasta–I can’t comment on that, haven’t tried it. I like Bionaturae because I can get it at so many different places. It’s even in my little neighborhood store, which has an extremely limited selection of gluten-free items.
Some people probably act like idiots when it comes to gluten-free eating, treating the label as a license to eat freely. I’ve never met such a person, but the internet tells me they exist, and for this reason, some people think celiac disease is overblown and gluten-free is a fad. Other people believe that, perhaps, there might be something to the idea that humans in general shouldn’t be eating gluten, or they’ve heard about celiac disease and gluten intolerance and think the symptoms sound like what’s happening in their own guts, so they lay off the stuff. I don’t care what those people do. I really don’t care whether people eat gluten or not.
One thing I do care about is the availability of gluten-free products. I’ve failed miserably at making GF pizza a few times, and I’m glad that it’s available in the freezer section and at Romio’s Pizzerias around Seattle (ten times better than frozen). More and more GF foods are becoming available all the time, both in stores and in restaurants, and I like this trend, even though I don’t base my diet upon pasta and cupcakes.
For NAH to publicly shame these producers of gluten-free foods is reprehensible. We need more gluten-free choices, not fewer.
NAH is a well-respected publication. It’s a slim, glossy, colorful monthly magazine of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and I believe I subscribed in the first place because Marion Nestle recommended it, and I think she rocks. According to the NAH website, “Almost 2 million people read every action-packed issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, making it the largest circulation health and nutrition newsletter in North America.”
If the CSPI, which publishes NAH, “has long sought to educate the public, advocate government policies that are consistent with scientific evidence on health and environmental issues,” I suggest educating consumers about healthy choices, and letting them know that white rice flour is not a health food, instead of slamming the companies that help me make the choices that keep my aching gut healthy.