Are you on a gluten-free diet? Regular breads, bagels, muffins, and many other store-bought baked goods are not allowed on gluten-free eating plans.
Here's what you need to know before you buy gluten-free grain products or bake them at home.
What Is Gluten?
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.
Gluten-Free Home Baking
When you're baking at home, it's impossible to simply substitute gluten-free flours for those with gluten and get the same results. However, home baking allows you to use an array of gluten-free flours with more nutrition than what's often found in commercially baked goods.
In supermarkets and online, you'll find a variety of gluten-free flours, including those made from:
- Brown rice
- Fava beans
- White beans
- Oats (make sure oats are certified gluten-free)
Avoid buying gluten-free flours from bulk bins. You never know if someone accidentally used the whole-wheat flour scoop in a gluten-free flour bin.
When you first start baking gluten-free, it may be easier to stick with a simple multi-purpose flour blend before experimenting further.
Fenster suggests relying on a pre-mixed homemade flour blend to use in a variety of baked goods, including bread, pizza dough, and pancakes. Having a flour mix on hand is a time saver that makes gluten-free baking that much easier.
"A good flour blend uses a main or protein-laden flour such as brown rice or sorghum or beans, for example, blended with a starchy flour such as potato starch or cornstarch," Fenster says. "The protein in flour lends structure and stability, while the starchy flours add lightness and airiness."
Recipe: Gluten-Free Flour Blend
Here is Fenster's recipe for a gluten-free flour blend:
- 1.5 cups sorghum or brown rice flour
- 1.5 potato starch or cornstarch
- 1 cup tapioca flour
Whisk together thoroughly and store in a dark, dry place.
When substituting this blend for wheat flour in recipes, measure it as though it were wheat flour.
Fenster says the sorghum version works well for most baked goods. She relies on the brown rice version for light and delicate baked goods, such as cake. When making muffins or yeast breads, you can substitute amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, or teff flour for sorghum or brown rice flour. (Teff is a tiny grain commonly used in Ethiopian cuisine.)