Over the past decade or so, gluten has become a hot topic and the term “gluten-free” has become something many of us look for on food labels and equate with the word “healthy.” While celiac disease only affects an estimated 1 percent of people , it’s been said that as much as 30 percent of the population in the U.S. has cut gluten out of their diet.
This has led to a dramatic rise in gluten-free products, especially gluten-free alternatives to products that ordinarily contain gluten, like bread, pasta, and crackers. With every food movement like this, there are upsides and downsides—in this case, the downsides include gastrointestinal issues, like bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea thanks to the gluten-free starches found in many of these gluten-free products.
So, let’s talk about this unexpected side effect of going gluten-free. Here’s what you need to know about gluten-free starches, including the pros, cons, and what you should look out for.
What are gluten-free starches?
Gluten itself is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and it acts as a binder and texturizer in food —it gives foods stretchy, thick, moist, and chewy qualities. Gluten-free starches are carbohydrate-rich ingredients that are used to mimic these qualities, without triggering an inflammatory response in people with celiac disease, as gluten does. They’re what make your gluten-free pancakes taste light and fluffy like the ones you had as a kid and what make your gluten-free bread not taste like cardboard.
Common examples of gluten-free starches include:
Where do you find gluten-free starches?
Most gluten-free starches are either sold in whole form—think corn or potatoes—in a flour or powder form—think rice flour, tapioca starch, corn flour—or they are used as ingredients in packaged foods and baked goods. This includes gluten-free cookies, gluten-free cakes, gluten-free breads, and plant-based, non-dairy milks (like almond, cashew, macadamia, etc.). Even homemade recipes can include gluten-free starches, using them to add volume and thickness to foods like soups, sauces, and other desserts and confections.
As the gluten-free movement has increased in popularity, the food industry has started using more of these gluten-free starches in their products. Offering gluten-free alternatives to their products allows them to add more customers to their base without sacrificing their gluten-eating customers. Not to mention, the term “gluten-free” has managed to become synonymous with “healthy,” so slapping a Certified Gluten Free label on a product carries weight. Of course, gluten-free does not always mean a food is healthy—and nowadays, it can often mean the opposite. Why? Because gluten-free products often contain processed ingredients, added sugar, and other synthetic ingredients.
The pros and cons of gluten-free starches
The upside of gluten-free starches is relatively straightforward: they are gluten-free, which makes them safe for people with celiac disease. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease, and when someone with celiac disease eats gluten, it triggers an immune response, and the body starts to attack what it perceives as an invader, including the gut lining. In the long-term, this response can cause damage to the gut, particularly the small intestine. In the short-term, the person with celiac who eats gluten will experience diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, vomiting, and/or fatigue. For them, eating gluten totally disrupts their gut health, and causes them pain and discomfort. You can see now why people with celiac rarely make exceptions—for many people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it’s also not worth it.
It used to be the case that if you had celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you were destined for a life without bread, cereal, baked goods, and pancakes. That’s where gluten-free starches come in! They have allowed us to create gluten-free versions of these typically gluten-filled products, with tastes and textures that mimic the real deal. As a result, many people who would normally miss out on foods they love don’t have to. Needless to say, they aren’t exactly the same, but for someone with celiac or gluten-sensitivity (like me) who loves bread, these gluten-free alternatives scratch the itch. If you’re in the gluten-free world, sometimes you just crave a piece of gluten-free bread that doesn’t taste like cardboard. That’s the magic of gluten-free starches.
The cons of gluten-free products, on the other hand, aren’t as straightforward. And the worst part is that many people aren’t aware of them! I’ve had numerous patients come to me with GI issues like bloating, upset stomach, gas, and diarrhea, and when we investigate their diet, we discover that gluten-free starches are the culprit. This isn’t the case for everyone—many people do fine eating gluten-free starches—but even still, gluten-free products often contain other gluten-free thickeners and gums, which can pose problems for your long-term health. In other words, just because it’s gluten-free, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy for you.
For example, let’s take oat milk. When you make oat milk at home, you use just a few ingredients: oats, water, maybe some salt or vanilla extract. That’s it. Now, let’s look at the ingredient list on Planet Oat’s Original Oat Milk .
OATMILK (FILTERED WATER, OATS), CALCIUM CARBONATE, DIPOTASSIUM PHOSPHATE (STABILIZER), SEA SALT, GELLAN GUM, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, VITAMIN D2, RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2) AND VITAMIN B12.
It’s not especially a long ingredient list, but you can clearly see ingredients like dipotassium phosphate, a stabilizer, and gellan gum, a food additive. These are used to improve the texture and smoothness of the milk, and to keep it from separating.
So, what does this have to do with gluten? Well, if you look at the label on Planet Oat’s Original Oat Milk, you’ll see a list of ingredients and allergens that this milk is free from, and gluten is on that list. If you have celiac disease or you’re avoiding gluten, you would probably pick up that oatmilk without thinking twice, because it says it’s gluten-free. Unfortunately, the gums, thickeners, and additives can cause GI issues. So while this oat milk is gluten-free, you could wind up having a secondary reaction to these ingredients. They’re gluten-free, but they’re not gut-friendly, and if you’re someone dealing with gastrointestinal issues, these ingredients could be the “why” behind your symptoms.
I’ll say it again: gluten-free doesn’t always equal gut-friendly.
The same goes for dairy-free. Many gluten-free products contain ingredients that can cause GI issues, which can be frustrating for people who are trying to make healthy choices.
What to look out for in a gluten-free starch
Just knowing a product is gluten-free isn’t enough—we need to look at the labels and see what ingredients the product contains.
Here are five ingredients I tell my clients—both gluten-free and otherwise—to take note of on food labels:
1. Gellan Gum
Gellan gum is a food additive typically used to bind or stabilize processed foods, produced by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodea . This is frequently used in place of gelatin, because gellan gum is vegetarian and vegan-friendly while gelatin isn’t. It’s often found in plant-based milks, candy, jams, and even ice cream. Gellan gum is generally considered “safe” by the FDA, but a few studies have found that gellan gum can slow digestion and lead to abnormalities in the gut lining.
2. Guar Gum
Another gum to look out for is guar gum, sometimes listed on ingredient lists as locust bean gum. Guar gum is commonly found in condiments, nut milks, baked goods, and more. It’s sometimes used for the treatment of GI disorders and to regulate bowel movements , but on the flip side, it doesn’t work for everyone and can cause symptoms to appear or worsen in those with chronic gastrointestinal issues.
Sago, also known as Sabudana , is a palm-derived starch that’s used as a food thickener. It’s a major staple for mainland people of New Guinea and Indonesia. This ingredient is less common than the others, and it actually has some health benefits. That said, it’s high in carbohydrates and is frequently used to help people put on weight, so if you have diabetes or are trying to lose weight, just be aware of this and avoid it. Sago is similar to tapioca, which is also an acceptable starch.
4. Corn Starch
Cornstarch in moderation poses no health issues, but I often caution people who are avoiding gluten to proceed with caution. Corn starch is made from corn, which is naturally gluten-free, but it can be made in facilities that process gluten-filled foods, in which case contamination is possible. For people who avoid gluten or have a mild sensitivity, this is unlikely to cause an issue, but for those with celiac, it could trigger an immune response.
Carrageenan is an additive derived from red seaweed that is used as a thickening, stabilizing, and emulsifying agent in foods. Of all the ingredients on this list, carrageenan is the one I caution against consuming the most. In fact, I recommend staying away from it completely. Carrageenan is surrounded by controversy , namely because it’s been shown to induce gut inflammation in animal studies. Many companies have started making the switch to sunflower lecithin, which I have seen fewer patients have issues with.
Even though the FDA hasn’t banned these ingredients, we have to remember that they are not food. These gums, stabilizers, and additives are just that! They do not naturally occur in food; they are created by companies and manufacturers who want to sell you on their product by making it taste or feel better by manipulating food texture. Overall, we want to eat food that is as close to its natural state as possible.
The takeaways here are:
1.) Just because something is gluten-free does not mean it’s healthy or gut-friendly. These products are often loaded with added sugars, gums, stabilizers, and additives to make them taste better and resemble gluten-filled products. These ingredients are not food, and can cause symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and more.
2.)For these reasons, gluten-free products should be eaten sparingly, like a gluten-free cake on your birthday. Look for GF products that have as few ingredients as possible, preferably whole food ingredients and preservative-free, not chemicals and additives. Look out for gellan gum, guar gum, sago, corn starch, and carrageenan.
3.)Whenever you can, make your food at home! I talk about this a lot, but processed and packaged foods are almost always worse than whatever version of them you whip up at home. By making them at home, you control what goes into it, and you can eliminate unhealthy ingredients. I’ve included an almond milk recipe below, which is super easy, cost effective, and contains none of the unnecessary, questionable ingredients that most store bought nut milks do.
How to make your own almond milk at home
One way to avoid the thickeners and other unwanted ingredients in these products is to make your own food at home. Almond milk, for instance, often has additives in it if you get the store bought versions, but is super simple to make at home.
Homemade Almond Milk
Makes 4 cups
- 1 cup raw, unsalted organic almonds
- 3 cups filtered water, plus filtered water for soaking the almonds
- 1 teaspoon vanilla powder or 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Pinch of sea salt
Recipe from HappyGutLife.com
Soak the almonds overnight in the filtered water.
Strain and rinse the almonds well and place in the blender.
Add the vanilla, sea salt, and 3 cups of filtered water to the blender and blend on high for 20 to 30 seconds.
Pour the almond mixture from the blender through a fine-meshed strainer bag into a bowl.
Squeeze the bag over the bowl until all the almond milk is strained out.
Store for a maximum of 3 days in a glass bottle in the refrigerator, and shake before using as the contents separate when they sit.