Gluten is a protein present in wheat flour, which is widely used in commercial and homemade baked goods. Gluten is also found in flour made from barley, rye, spelt, and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps dough to rise and lends shape and a chewy texture to baked goods.
"Baking without gluten can be challenging because gluten contributes important properties to baked products like cookies, cakes, pastries, and breads," says Carol Fenster, PhD, author of 10 gluten-free cookbooks, including 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes, and her most recent, 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes.
That's why, in addition to seeing gluten-free flours such as white rice flour listed in the ingredient list, you may also notice xanthan gum and guar gum. "These gums work with other ingredients, such as yeast, baking soda, and baking powder, to help the dough or batter rise," Fenster says.
Read the Label
For the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a must for good health. Others avoid gluten because they feel sensitive to it.
Among some people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, gluten-free goods may have a "health halo." That is, they're considered more nutritionally valuable for what they contain -- or don't contain, in the case of gluten.
Gluten-free bread, bagels, and muffins may taste better now than when they first hit store shelves years ago, but they haven't improved much nutritionally. The store-bought gluten-free baked goods you eat on a regular basis, such as bread and bagels, are not created equal to regular varieties made with wheat flour.
Wheat flour is typically enriched with vitamins and minerals, including iron, folic acid, and other B vitamins, and whole wheat flour supplies fiber. You can't count on gluten-free flours to provide the same nutrient profile.
It's important to read the Nutrient Facts panels carefully to help avoid certain nutrient shortfalls on a gluten-free eating plan.
"Purchase gluten-free products with added vitamins and minerals, and look for items made with whole grain flour or bean flour to help you get the nutrients you need," says Shelley Case, RD, nutrition consultant and author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.
Although there's no shortage of refined carbohydrates in most commercial gluten-free baked goods, most are lower in fiber, Case says.
"When there's no gluten in a recipe, it takes far more gluten-free ingredients to produce a tasty product," Case explains.
The refined carbohydrates typically used in gluten-free products and mixes, including white rice flour and tapioca, produce baked goods that are much higher in calories and total carbohydrates than regular versions.
Simply swapping regular bread, muffins, and other baked items for gluten-free products without any regard for calories can easily lead to weight gain. Case warns that gluten-free baked goods won't necessarily help you with weight control, and they may hinder weight control efforts.
Gluten-free or not, it always pays to be aware of your personal calorie budget for weight control. Check the calories and serving sizes of store-bought baked goods, and make sure all the foods you eat, including gluten-free cookies, cake, and brownies, fit into your daily calorie allowance for weight maintenance or weight loss.