“Free-from” food products, whether they’re labeled sugar-free, fat-free or gluten-free, are fast becoming a trendy lifestyle choice, regardless of allergies or intolerance.
The popularity of these products, tastier and more widely available than ever, is driven by health-focused consumers, research firms say. These so-called avoiders are also swayed by the “health halo,” or the perception that the product is better for you because it’s lacking an ingredient or nutrient.
Here’s how to make smart choices when shopping the free-from offerings:
What it means: Unlike fat- and sugar-free, gluten-free is essential for those who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by eating the protein gluten. Foods without certain grains, including wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, triticale and crossbred hybrids, can be considered gluten-free, according to a proposed definition by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Common substitutions: Products often use a combination of gluten-free flours, such as chickpea flour, brown rice flour, oat flour, buckwheat flour. Many gluten-free products use different gums, such as xanthan, carob bean and guar gum.
Watch out for: Starches. “The potato starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch and rice starch typically used in nearly all gluten-free foods are among the few foods that raise blood sugar higher than even whole wheat. This triggers insulin resistance and abdominal weight gain and can lead to heart disease, cataracts, arthritis and hypertension. Eating gluten-free (processed) foods is little better than eating jelly beans.
On the label: Look for ingredients like “ground almonds and other ground nuts, coconut flour, ground flaxseed and occasionally other flours that do not cause blood sugar to skyrocket nor trigger any of the other phenomena like whole grains such as brown rice, gluten-free oats and ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and millet. Even better, chose whole and minimally processed naturally gluten-free foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
What it means: The product contains less than 0.5 gram of sugars per serving, according to the FDA. But sugar-free can still be full of calories and carbohydrates. In fact, if a sugar-free food is not low or reduced in calories, the company must disclose that fact.
Common substitutions: Companies can make a sugar-free claim by using artificial sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame-potassium, and sucralose — also known as Splenda) or sugar alcohols (sorbitol, maltitol). On average, sugar alcohols, found in ice creams, cookies, puddings, candies and chewing gum, provide about half the calories of sugar and other carbohydrates.
Watch out for: Most foods that contain artificial sweeteners are highly processed and offer very little in terms of nutrition. People who regularly eat/drink artificial sweeteners may not find fruit to “hit the sweet spot” because their taste buds have been trained to appreciate aspartame’s sweetness as the standard. Artificial sweeteners register as hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and train our taste buds to crave flavors unrivaled by nature. Keep in mind, too, that sugar alcohols (like maltitol and sorbitol) can cause gastrointestinal distress.
On the label: Sugar-free foods often include genetically modified ingredients, refined grains, unhealthy and processed fats, food dyes and chemical preservatives.
What it means: The product contains no more than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, but serving is defined by the manufacturer.
Common substitutions: Fat is usually replaced with a polysaccharide starch product like maltodextrin, modified cornstarch or tapioca starch, which break down into sugars. The starch is often chemically modified to make it easier to digest. To give the products the feeling of fat in the mouth, companies might use other kinds of polysaccharides like pectin (from citrus fruits), carrageenan (from seaweed) and guar gum (from the guar bean).
Watch out for: Fat-free products usually have fewer calories than regular ones, but as much or more carbohydrates. There’s little if any evidence showing that switching to fat-free foods results in lower weights or better health. In fact, people who eat fat-free foods are likely to make up for the calories they save by eating more of those or other foods, since our bodies are very good at keeping our intake of calories constant. And fat-free candy? It’s pure sugar.
On the label: Look for healthful fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids or the monounsaturated fats in olives, walnuts, pecans, almonds and avocados. Many nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K, are fat soluble, which means they need to be eaten with fat to be absorbed. Additionally, dietary fat helps provide a feeling of fullness. That’s why 150 calories of almonds (which provide protein, fiber and fat) are more filling than 150 calories of pretzels (which offer very little, if any, of those three).
In the long run, there are no “free” foods because everything you eat influences your health positively or negatively. Eating whole foods is always the healthiest option. Minimizing processed foods, which all too often are also “free” free foods has tremendous short and long term health benefits. Be an informed consumer—read labels and purchase wisely. Make the healthy choice the easy choice.