Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fat and Sugar: Are Gluten-Free Treats Really Worse?

Have you ever heard a warning along these lines: "In order to make up for their lack of gluten, gluten-free baked goods often contain extra fat and sugar to make them tastier and more palatable."

It's becoming a popular mantra. I read it in the popular media (in stories cautioning readers about the potential nutritional pitfalls of the gluten-free diet) and I read it in blogs. I'm embarrassed to admit it's a party line I've repeated as well. But is it true?

Statements like the one above get repeated enough (and not questioned enough) that they become conventional wisdom and accepted as truth, even when there may be no grounds for it.

To be honest, I've been mildly suspicious of that warning for a little while now. For one, our recipe for chocolate chips cookies in Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking is no different gluten-free than if we were to make a "regular" version with wheat flour. No added fat. No added sugar. If our baked goods are no different from their "normal" counterparts (save for making them gluten-free), then what about others' gluten-free baked goods?

We decided to investigate using some hard and fast numbers, to see if there was any truth to the statement or if it instead turned out to be a myth. If you've bought into the party line up until now, the results of our "investigation" may surprise you.

We focused our inquiry on chocolate chip cookies—and the results speak for themselves—though you could certainly repeat the effort with other categories of baked goods: cakes, breads, donuts, whatever. We compared three versions of gluten vs. gluten-free chocolate chip cookies: crunchy, chewy, and box mix. Since various brands have different serving sizes, we scaled all nutritional info to a common 100g serving size, and looked at calories, fat (in grams), sodium (in mg), protein (g), carbs (g), and sugars (g).


For the crunchy chocolate chip cookie comparison, we looked at Nabisco Chips Ahoy and Pamela's Chunky Chocolate Chip. Here's how they compare:

Brand Calories Fat Sodium Protein Carbs Sugars
Gluten Nabisco 475 22.5 350 5 67.5 32.5
GF Pamela's 522 26.1 348 4.35 60.9 30.5

As you can see, Pamela's—the gluten-free offering—has more calories and fat, but less sugars and overall carbs, plus nearly identical levels of sodium and comparable levels of protein.


For the chewy chocolate chip cookie comparison, we looked at Entenmann's Original Recipe and Udi's Soft & Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies. Here's how they compare:

Brand Calories Fat Sodium Protein Carbs Sugars
Gluten Entenmann's 466.2 23.3 266.4 3.33 66.6 36.6
GF Udi's 466.2 22.2 266.4 4.44 66.6 35.5

As you can see, Udi's—the gluten-free offering—had 1g less fat and 1g less sugar, with identical levels of calories, sodium, and overall carbs, and 1g more protein.

Box Mix

For the box mix chocolate chip cookies, we looked at Betty Crocker's regular vs. gluten-free chocolate chip cookie mixes. Here's how they compare:

Brand Calories Fat Sodium Protein Carbs Sugars
Gluten Betty Crocker 428.4 10.7 374.9 3.6 75 46.4
GF Betty Crocker 407 7.4 462.5 3.7 85.1 45.1

As you can see, the gluten-free version of Betty Crocker's box cookie mix had less fat, less calories, and 1g less sugars, with comparable protein and more sodium and overall carbs.


If one thing becomes immediately apparent, it is this: the myth that gluten-free baked goods have more fat and sugar than their conventional, gluten-ous counterparts is thoroughly busted. You simply can't make such a global statement. As the numbers in these comparisons demonstrate, gluten-free baked goods might have more, similar amounts of, or less fat and sugar than the gluten-ous versions.

What's the take-home lesson? Apart from the obvious "has gluten" vs. "doesn't have gluten" difference, gluten-free baked goods, treats, and junk food aren't inherently different nutritionally from the "regular" stuff, at least as measured by fat and sugar content on a macro level. Junk food is still junk food. A treat is still a treat. But let's stop mindlessly repeating the mantra that "gluten-free foods have added fat and sugar to compensate for their lack of gluten." The numbers don't lie. That statement is just plain bogus.


Image courtesy stock.xchng / pixaio.


Amelia Mansfield said...

Thanks for this, Pete - I've always been a little suspicious of this claim which is also repeated regularly in the media here in the UK. I've heard it said across the board for gluten-free products which has always saddened me as I was diagnosed as coeliac 5 years ago and am a lifelong vegetarian so more dependant on products such as pasta and bread than most.

Seeing your experiment, I have done my own comparing gluten-free and gluten-containing pasta both the 'own' brands from Sainsbury's (one of the major supermarket chains in the UK). Their gluten-free pasta is one of the best-tasting on the market.

Gluten-containing (per 100g):
Calories: 357
Fat: 1.7g
Protein: 12.3g
Salt: 0.3g

Gluten-free (per 100g):
Calories: 351
Fat: 1.0g
Protein: 7.0g
Salt: trace

Which further proves your point! :)

IrishHeart said...

I think the majority of people who make this statement are concerned about celiacs consuming TOO MANY packaged foods. This concern is not just about fat and sugar, but about carbs, calories, preservatives and those "unpronounceable ingredients" we all wonder about. (My husband is a chemist, so I just ask him :) )

I agree with you that homemade breads and baked goods are best because we control what's IN them--
and they taste better.

I also agree that occasional treats are not only fun, but essential to enjoying life!

However, I know that many newly diagnosed celiacs often seek to replace ALL their former comfort foods because they have no time to bake. So, they purchase too many packaged GF foods that are loaded with carbs. They often fail to balance their diets with fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, fish, etc. As a result, they gain weight and feel lousy and wonder why. (I keep saying "they". I should include "me". I fell into this trap myself at the beginning of my GF life as well.)

I also agree there is nothing wrong with GF pastas and cookies, etc. ---but add: in moderation.

It's like anything else in life; over-indulgence may create a problem.


SimplyFresh said...

I've been meaning to read this post for the last week, and I am so glad I finally sat down to indulge! I'm so glad to find this gf statement as "BOGUS!!" Honestly, people need to just remember the saying, "everything in moderation, including moderation!"
thanks for the great detective work!

M Smith said...

I hate to sound like the nay-sayer here...

But, while I appreciate the best effort possible by comparing it to an apples-to-apples 100g serving size, you have to remember that even then the numbers are slightly skewed because the nutritional data on the side of the box of a product is, legally, rounded to the nearest gram, up or down. So any extrapolations made on such values will skew the overall score. Something to consider when you are comparing one product or another that differ by a gram or two in a given category.

Second, I think you picked three good products to support your claim. Two pre-packaged, no additional ingredients added products and one with ingredients added. And by lucky, I mean that the one product that you chose that additional ingredients are required, both the gluten filled and GF products require the exact same amount of ingredients (1 stick of butter, one egg) to roughly the same amount of starting product (19oz GF package vs. 17.5oz gluten-filled package) so your analysis of the end product - after adding your consumer supplied ingredients and baking the cookies - is still valid.

But... We all know that we eat more than just cookies.

So, let's stick with the same brand of a box mix and move onto say...cake. So, you buy a Betty Crocker cake mix (lets say yellow) and you take it home and you need to add a stick of butter and three eggs. Well, the original gluten-filled mix only requires a 1/3 cup of added fat (1 stick of butter is 1/2 cup) along with the three eggs. Well, that's not too much added fat, right? Well, that is until you realize that the GF cake mix only makes 1 LAYER! The original box mix makes two, so in order to make the apples-to-apples comparison, you need to realize that the two-layer GF cake will be made with 6 eggs and 2 sticks of butter. More than twice the fat and cholesterol.

Don't even get me started on the GF vs. Gluten bread...