Reasons to avoid the ultra-processed “Free-From” aisle when you are gluten-free

Aisles of food in a grocery store.

If you or your child have been diagnosed with Coeliac disease or have a gluten sensitivity, then it is very easy to stock up on lots of gluten-free options in the free-from aisle. Eating these foods from time to time is totally OK. However, this may not be the most nutritious solution and there is a happy medium.

Buying packaged gluten-free foods is a trap I fell into at the start of the decade that I needed to go gluten-free for my autoimmunity, and I found out quite quickly that these foods did my energy and metabolic health no favours.

I did occasionally eat these shop-bought foods when out and about for convenience, especially when loved ones were kind and bought these foods for me to enjoy. Eating these foods may help you feel like you are eating similar foods to your friends and family and are not missing out or being different from the pack – which is good for morale and to keep you on track with sticking to the dietary restrictions.

The highly processed ingredients lacking in key nutrients in commercial gluten-free foods is what sparked my interest in creating nutritious gluten-free baking recipes. Even though I no longer need to be gluten-free, I still bake this way as the recipes are packed with goodies and are better for my blood glucose, focus, energy and mood.

Get our lovely Healthy Bites newsletter each week!

Each week, you'll get an amazing recipe, a useful health tip, and an ingredient to jazz up your shopping basket! We don't share your details with anyone else.

Ultra-processed gluten-free foods

The main problem with most shop-bought gluten-free foods is that they are usually ultra-processed. This means that they contain a high number of fractioned parts of food as well as food-grade chemicals such as preservatives and emulsifiers which you can read on their ingredient label. The food manufacturers now use complex ingredients and powerful industrial methods to create these foods to give them a decent shelf life, taste and mouth feel. This is partly driven by consumer demand for like-for-like gluten-free options, that will not go mouldy quickly, and are also low in fats, sugars and salt. So this means without the ultra-processing ingredients and methods, it would be extremely hard to turn the gluten-free grains into soft tasty bread, that didn’t crumble and lasted in your bread bin for more than a day or two.

It IS possible to create sourdough gluten-free breads using simple ingredients and more traditional methods, and a few artisan gluten-free bakeries have cracked the method, so look out for these options online and stocked in some specialist bakeries and delicatessens. Store them sliced in your freezer so you always have some to hand.

We are now aware of the potential negative effects that ultra-processed foods can have on both our short-term health (in terms of sleep patterns, energy and mood), as well as long-term bone, metabolic, immunity and brain health, so it’s really important to consider the amount we are eating and not go overboard.

The current line of thinking is that we should aim to keep the consumption of ultra-processed foods to below 20% of our diet, however many people (gluten-free or not) are consuming up to 80% of their diet as ultra-processed foods. The average shopping trolley in the UK contains 52% ultra-processed foods.

Blood-glucose imbalance

Look at the first few items on the ingredients list of gluten-free bakery foods. Usually, they are highly refined modified starches made from rice, maize or potato which can result in a very high blood-glucose spike shortly after consuming them. Reactive hypoglycaemia, or a “sugar crash”, can occur between 15 minutes and 3 hours after eating, which can make you feel “hangry”, irritable and even shaky. This is a sign that the meal has contained too much carbohydrate for that person to tolerate in comparison with the amount of protein, fat and vegetables they have consumed. This poor regulation of energy levels can be one of the drivers of chronic inflammation and why people don’t always feel better on a gluten-free diet.

Not enough key nutrients

The other problem is that these foods tend to be low in the key nutrients that people with Coeliac disease (or a gluten intolerance) need and struggle to absorb at the best of times. These include iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. So, relying on  processed foods can displace the opportunity to eat more nutrient-dense foods that do contain these vital minerals and vitamins. If you have a gut that has compromised absorption, then prioritising nutrient rich foods is key. Some brands are bolstering their offerings with fortification but not always.

Too much arsenic

A further thing to watch out for is rice flour, which tends to be a popular swap for wheat flour in gluten-free processed foods. Rice is a healthy grain, however due to traces of arsenic in the ground and water in some areas of the world where the rice grows, it is commonly contaminated with arsenic. This is something which is hard to control and is a problem for organic and non-organic rice.

If you cook rice at home, you can soak and rinse out these contaminants. Unfortunately, the commercial food producers who make foods containing rice, may not take this so seriously, and there is quite a bit of evidence that rice milk, rice cakes and rice-based gluten-free flour can be relatively high in arsenic content. This is why the government advises to avoid these processed rice-based products for babies under 12 months, as it is thought to affect the baby’s neurodevelopment and may be a risk factor for childhood cancers. High levels of arsenic exposure has been linked to increased rates of both bladder and lung cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease in adults.

The reality is that if you need to follow a gluten-free diet in the long term you will probably eat more ultra-processed foods than the rest of the population. This is because, even if you cook from scratch entirely at home, it’s much more convenient for shops, cafes and restaurants to stock single serve gluten-free packets as these options help keep you safe from cross contamination in their establishment.

Six ways to avoid too many ultra-processed gluten-free foods

  1. Aim to consume 20% or less ultra-processed foods from the gluten-free aisle or elsewhere. This could be one fifth of your meal, and see it as a side, rather than the main event. Or (if you are eating 21 meals a week), this means about four of your meals a week can contain a greater amount of ultra-processed gluten-free foods. Then cook from scratch or choose minimally processed or fresh foods the rest of the time.
  2. Find gluten-free foods that are minimally processed such as gluten-free sourdough from The Gluten-Free Bakery or Knife & Fork Gluten-Free Bakery in the UK.
  3. Choose  naturally gluten-free foods and highly nutritious foods as part of your daily shopping and cooking routine. These include pulses, fruits, salads, vegetables, red meats, offal, shellfish, seafood, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats such as butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, tallow, goose fat and duck fat.
  4. Choose wisely on the gluten-free aisle and seek out nutritious options from your health food shop. Think gluten-free oats as well as grains, flakes and flours made from buckwheat, millet, amaranth, teff and sorghum. Also try ground almonds, chickpea flour and lentil pasta.
  5. Learn to bake gluten-free snacks and store them in the freezer, so you always have something yummy to grab (check out my recipes here)
  6. Keep little pots of naturally gluten-free goodies in your bag for snacks such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, olives, crunchy veg sticks, biltong or cheese so you have something decent to eat when you are out and about.

Round up

It is tough being gluten-free without having to navigate ultra-processed foods as well. Remember that shop-bought gluten-free foods are not always as healthy as they are cracked up to be. Do your best to keep these ultra-processed foods to a minimum, and nourish your body and brain with naturally gluten-free foods instead.

If you are struggling to eat well on a gluten-free diet or you have other more complex dietary needs to navigate, then do get in touch with our NatureDoc clinical team or nutrition coach.

Lucinda Recommends

We know many people want to know what products we recommend but unfortunately for regulatory reasons, recommendations have to be private. However all is not lost, you can join NatureDoc Live! for monthly Zoom Q&As with Lucinda, as well as a forum for asking questions, and access to recommendations in our blogs which appear when you log in.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.