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:
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:
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.
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:
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.