AdobeStock 106751265

Why not choose gluten-free packaged foods?

Joy Cutrone, Wellness & Certified AIP Coach, FMCHC-Candidate
AdobeStock 80252430

No matter which dietary approach you choose to intentionally support autoimmune wellness, there’s no debate among any experts that gluten has to be off the list. You don’t have to have read Grain Brain front to back, or delved too far into any site, blog, or book that talks about autoimmunity to run into that fact. Check out any of Tom O’Bryan’s materials (1). Tom is a world-renowned expert on non-Celiac gluten sensitivity if you need more information or validation (2) on that. Or see any of the other celebrity functional medicine practitioners’ opinions, such as Dr. Mark Hyman (3) or Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (4), a.k.a. “The Paleo Mom,” Dr. Amy Myers (5), Dr. Josh Axe (6) or, as I say, the list goes on. It’s the single most important dietary choice you can make right now, today, to get started on healing (that and adding a wider spectrum of nutrient-dense vegetables to your diet).

Is simply choosing gluten-free packaged goods the answer?

If you dig a little deeper into what the experts are saying, you’ll find they encourage you to choose non-gluten foods versus gluten-substitute foods for optimal diet. These are whole foods that are naturally gluten-free – foods that I call ‘non-gluten’ foods – which are nutritionally superior, versus foods that would normally have gluten in them, but which are instead packed with gluten-substitute fillers, pseudo-grains, sugar, bad oils and, oftentimes, gums to hold it all together. You can feel heroic finding a gluten-free treat to indulge yourself – we’ve all done it – and then read the label only to find you really haven’t gained much in the overall balance. Some ingredients in these foods can also cause a cross-reaction, meaning your immune system can think they’re gluten and attack, even when they’re not :-(.

Typical ingredients in gluten free manufactured baked goods that can be harmful

  1. Sugars
    It’s amazing how much sugar you can find dumped into gluten-free baked goods. Sugar has some leavening qualities, so helps to improve the texture as well as mask the taste of other ingredients in these foods (if you can tolerate that level of sweetness). Yet I continue to be baffled as to why bakers believe that, while consumers are avoiding one ingredient that’s harmful to their health, they’d be happy to overindulge in an equally harmful ingredient instead. Scientists and researchers now understand that sugar is a neurotoxin (7), and it also feeds bad bacteria in the gut (8) as well as fungi (especially Candida Albicans (9)), which can cause all kinds of unpleasant symptoms, to say nothing of what it can do for obesity, cardiometabolic disease, and diabetes. (10, 11, 12, 13).


  1. Gums and emulsifiers

Gums and emulsifiers, such as xanthan gum, guar gum, cellulose gum, lecithin, and carrageenan are other ingredients that can make trouble. Think of the “glue” in “gluten,” and that tells you why other glue-like gums are often used in gluten-free foods: they make the ingredients stick together smoothly, and are designed to improve the mouth-feel in mass-produced foods. Gums sneak into far more than baked goods too, such as non-dairy milks, salad dressings, and ice cream – a lot of things you wouldn’t think need “gum” – kind of like, well, gluten does. Gums in gluten-free foods are hard to avoid.

  • Cellulose gum, according to Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, “is known to cause massive bacterial overgrowth, damage to the mucus barrier of the small intestine and inflammation in the small intestine in animals, hallmarks of Crohn’s disease. Here’s a quote from a 2009 paper in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: “[carboxymethyl cellulose] is an ideal suspect to account for the rise of IBD in the 20th” (14)
  • Chris Kresser, on the other hand, who is a global leader in the fields of ancestral health, Paleo nutrition, and functional and integrative medicine, does note that guar gum can be “difficult to digest, especially for people with digestive problems (1 in 3 Americans, from the latest statistics). In [his] clinical experience, many patients with gut issues improve when they remove guar gum from their diet.” He ranks carrageenan above gums in being problematic, however, and also notes that “the overall quality of your diet is far more important than how well you avoid these additives.” (15, 16).

Gelatin is often used in AIP recipes, which provides a nutritional and healing boost as well as effective binding for baked goods.

  1. Bad oils and fats

For years, we’ve been told by doctors and reporters to avoid saturated fats because of cardiovascular health concerns.  With better research methods and the relentless search for better nutrition for improved health, we now know that this advice was misplaced (17), since the brain needs fat for fuel (18), and saturated fats are stable in cooking. In fact, low-fat diets have recently been proven to increase the risk of death (19), while foods high in good fats are the basis of the Keto diet (20), which is designed for optimal brain health.

But are all fats the same? No, they are not. Dr. Mark Hyman explains:

“Gluten-free products are also often filled with a deadly fat, such as processed vegetable oils or hydrogenated oils and trans-fats. These clear, tasteless, highly refined and processed oils include corn, soybean, canola, safflower and sunflower oils. Like sugar, these inflammatory omega-6 fats crank up inflammation while blocking anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.” (21)

This is often why functional medicine practitioners emphasize omega 3 fat supplements: to help counterbalance the typical modern diet and help ensure the right balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids.

While saturated fats are the best kind of fat to cook and bake with because they don’t oxidize (go rancid) at higher cooking temperatures, what is typically found in gluten-free packaged foods are unsaturated, easily-oxidized fats such as processed oils, hydrogenated oils, and industrial seed oils (canola, cottonseed, corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut, and grapeseed oil.  Add to this the long shelf life of these foods and you have oxidized or “rancid” oils can cause that cellular and immune damage. (22)

  1. Cross-reactive grains, grain substitutes, and dairy

Cross-reactive ingredients can often be found in gluten free foods. A cross-reactive ingredient is one that your body thinks is gluten, even though it’s not. This means that you might not be eating gluten anymore, but your body thinks you are, because the signature of that food is similar to gluten. So, your immune system, which remembered the gluten profile, attacks that food with the similar signature. This is a particular risk with grains, but also other foods, as well. A recent study published in Nutrients journal summarizes:

“…Cereal grains contain “anti-nutrients,” such as wheat gluten and wheat lectin, that in humans can elicit dysfunction and disease. In this review, we discuss evidence from in vitroin vivo and human intervention studies that describe how the consumption of wheat, but also other cereal grains, can contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases by increasing intestinal permeability and initiating a pro-inflammatory immune response.” (23)

Dr. Sarah Ballantyne further explains:

“What happens in cross-reactivity? In this case, the amino acid sequence that an antibody recognizes is also present in another protein from another food (in the case of molecular mimicry, that sequence is also present is a protein in the human body). There are only 20 different amino acids, so while there are millions of possible ways to link various amount of each amino acid together to form a protein, there are certain amino acid sequences that do tend to repeat in biology.

The take home message: depending on exactly what antibody or antibodies your body forms against gluten, it/they may or may not cross-react with other foods. So, not only are you sensitive to gluten, but your body now recognizes non-gluten containing foods as one and the same. Who needs to worry about this? Any of the estimated 20% of people who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, i.e., have formed antibodies against gluten.” (24)

The list of potential cross-reactive foods can get long quickly. Top on the list are dairy, corn, and soy but also, potentially, rice and white potato. Handily, none of these foods are included in a Paleo diet or the elimination phase of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), so if you choose those dietary protocols, you’re covered. Some of those foods can also potentially be added back in small amounts as you reintroduce foods, if desired, and if no adverse reaction is observed. You can learn more about why grains can have a long-term detrimental effect on health from a variety of functional medicine celebrities; Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s explanation is accessible here.


Lastly, an increasing number of experts are encouraging choosing non-gluten, whole foods from a lifestyle perspective, as well. If you get in the habit of eating whole foods, versus looking for a gluten-free substitute for a gluten-carrying food, you’re less likely to be tempted to pick up an unwholesome food in a weak moment that might increase gut permeability, spike your blood sugar, cause indigestion, include a toxin from pesticide, herbicide, or GMO grains — or any of the other risks associated with eating grains and pseudo-grains. (4) You become accustomed to eating whole foods, which are naturally richer in the nutrients that support health.

Non-gluten food alternatives

So, what are better, non-gluten, high-nutrient food options? Go to the next article in this series, “Non-gluten versus gluten free” to learn more. There are more options than you might think – even for baking, which we discuss in the third part of this series, “Non-gluten baking.”


  1. Tom O’Bryan on autoimmunity and the gut, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, The Gluten Summit, an educational program with interviews of 29 experts in the field on the impact of gluten in the system.
  2. Learn more about gluten and gluten cross-reactivity from foods like dairy in The Gluten Summit; see also an interview about it by Sean Croxton, formerly of Underground Wellness, and related discussions on YouTube accessible from that link.
  3. Mark Hyman, “Gluten: What You Don’t Know Might Kill You.”
  4. Sarah Ballantyne, “Why Grains are Bad.”
  5. Amy Myers, “Three Important Reasons to Give Up Gluten If You Have an Autoimmune Disease,”and “This is Your Gut on Gluten.”
  6. Josh Axe, “How to overcome gluten sensitivity.”
  7. Kelly Brogan, “Two foods that may sabotage your brain.”
  8. Mark Hyman, “5 steps to kill hidden bad bugs in your gut that make you sick.”
  9. Lisa Richards, “Why does Candida really need sugar?”
  10. com, “Does sugar cause acne? 3 ways sweet tooth can ruin your skin.”
  11. Amy Myers on, “10 signs you have Candida overgrowth and what to do about it.”
  12. NCBI, “Controversies about sugars: results from systematic reviews and meta-analyses on obesity, cardiometabolic disease and diabetes” by Tauseef A. Khan and John L. Sievenpiper, Springer European Journal of Nutrition, 2016 Nov 30.
  13. David Perlmutter, “Sugar risks go beyond weight gain.”
  14. Sarah Ballantyne on, “Is it Paleo? Guar gum, xanthan gum, and lecithin, oh my!”
  15. Chris Kresser, “Three reasons why coconut milk may not be your friend” by Chris Kresser, June 9, 2011. (The other reasons are the risk of BPA lining in the can, and fructose malabsorption).
  16. Chris Kresser, “Harmful or harmless: guar gum, locust bean gum, and more.”
  17. Jill Carnahan, “Huge news: low fat diets increase risk of death, study says,” citing “Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study” by Mahshid Dehghan, Andrew Mente, Xiaohe Zhang, et al, S0140-6736(17)32252-3, and “Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the ketogenic diet,” by Maciej Gasior, Michael A. Rogawski, and Adam L. Hartman, Behav Pharmacol. 2006 Sep; 17(5-6): 431–439.
  18. David Landau on, “How eating fat can make you smarter.”
  19. Re-evaluation of the traditional diet-heart hypothesis: analysis of recovered data from Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968-73)” by Christopher E Ramsden, medical investigator, Daisy Zamora, epidemiologist, Sharon Majchrzak-Hong, research chemist, et al, The BMJ, 19 February 2016.
  20. Emily Deans, “Your brain on ketones.”
  21. Mark Hyman, “Here’s why a gluten-free diet can become incredibly unhealthy.”
  22. Oxidized oils in food may be harmful to health,” by Judy Thalheimer, RD, LDN, Environmental Nutrition, The Detroit News, 20, 2015.
  23. The Dietary Intake of Wheat and other Cereal Grains and Their Role in Inflammation” by Karin de Punder and Leo Pruimboom in 2013;5(3):771-787.
  24. Sarah Ballantyne, in, “Gluten cross-reactivity: how your body can still think you’re eating gluten even after giving it up.”

See Also

Join our newsletter for our eBook – Honor yourself Autoimmune
No Thanks