Going gluten free has become one of the most popular dietary trends over the past few years. In fact, one-third of Americans actively try to avoid eating gluten, according to NYU Langone,
But for many people, “gluten free” is more than just a buzzword — avoiding gluten is essential.
But what exactly is gluten? Is it “bad” for you? Should you switch to a gluten free diet?
Gluten is a general name for the protein found primarily in wheat (including wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, khorasan wheat and einkorn), barley and rye. Gluten has a glue-like property that helps foods maintain their shape. It’s what makes dough elastic and gives bread the ability to rise during baking. It also provides that chewy texture.
But if a person has a gluten intolerance, this protein can cause digestive problems. Many people experience gassiness, abdominal pain, bloating or diarrhea as a result of their gluten intolerance.
Gluten intolerance is sometimes thought of as a food allergy or confused with Celiac disease; however, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), these are not the same conditions. Food intolerances, such as a gluten intolerance, involve the digestive system. With a food allergy, the immune system overreacts to a particular food. This overreaction causes symptoms that are potentially serious or even life-threatening.
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that can damage the small intestine. The immune system’s attacks on the small intestine lead to damage on the villi, which are small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body. According to research published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology titled “The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States,” around 1% of people are affected by celiac disease. It is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (such as a parent or sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease. The Celiac Disease Foundation warns that celiac disease can develop at any age after people start incorporating foods or medicines that contain gluten into their diet. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems.
But whether you have celiac disease, gluten intolerance or simply any type of food allergy, a product’s ingredients list is a top concern. Avoiding particular foods and ingredients — such as gluten — is a treatment strategy for all these conditions. Not only does that require you to pay attention to whether gluten is found in the food you consume, you also have to be mindful about whether gluten is in any supplements you take — including your protein powder.
With its quick absorption rate and effective release of anabolic hormones that stimulate muscle growth, whey protein is one of the most popular protein powders on the market. Whey is the by-product of cheese production. During cheesemaking, special enzymes are added to heated milk that cause the casein in milk to change to a solid state and separate from a liquid substance. That liquid substance is the whey protein. The whey protein is then washed and dried into a powdered form to become the supplements you mix into your protein shakes or add to foods and recipes for a protein boost. Given that whey is isolated from milk, whey protein is naturally gluten free; however, many whey protein powders may include additional ingredients that contain gluten, such as certain flavorings, stabilizers or preservatives. Additionally, whey powder can be cross-contaminated with gluten if it’s manufactured in the same facility as other products that contain gluten, even if the whey powder itself does not contain a glutenous ingredient.
So how can you tell if popular protein powders like whey have gluten? In the United States, any product labeled “gluten free” must be made with gluten free ingredients and contain fewer than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. If you see “gluten free” written on a protein powder product, that should serve as indication that the protein powder is, in fact, gluten free. Also, you can look out for protein powders that have been certified gluten free by a third-party organization, such as the Gluten Free Certification Organization (GFCO). To receive the GFCO seal of approval, products must contain no more than 10 ppm of gluten — a requirement that is even more stringent than what is required by law.
Although whey protein is many people’s go-to protein powder, it’s not always an option for people who have food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances — especially those affected by dairy. Plant protein and vegan protein powders like pea protein, soy protein, rice protein and hemp protein offer all the muscle-building protein without the dairy.
But are they also gluten free?
Pea protein is the protein extracted from yellow split peas. Not only is pea protein a high-quality protein that’s naturally vegan, it’s also hypoallergenic and one of the more easily digested plant-based proteins. Pea protein is gluten free, and it does not contain any of the other top food allergens (such as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish and cow’s milk).
The protein from soybeans is also naturally gluten free. Soy protein is made from defatted soybean flakes that have been washed in either alcohol or water to remove extras like sugars and dietary fiber. It’s one of the few plant-based complete proteins and contains very little fat and no cholesterol. But like whey protein, many soy protein powders are also often made with other gluten-containing ingredients. It’s important to check the labels of your protein powders and other soy products. Choose soy products that are marked “gluten free,” as those are required to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.
Even though people associate rice with carbs, and carbs with gluten, rice protein is actually gluten free and contains a fair amount of protein (around four grams per cup of white rice, and more than five grams per cup of brown rice). Brown rice protein is a protein supplement made from brown rice, which is converted into powder form. The brown rice is treated with select enzymes that cause the protein and carbohydrates that make up the rice to separate. The protein is isolated, resulting in a protein powder. Like pea protein, brown rice protein is hypoallergenic — perfect for people with gluten sensitivities or allergies.
Hemp protein is also naturally gluten free. It’s made by removing the oil from shelled hemp seeds. The remaining solid is then powdered to make hemp protein powder, which has a moderate protein level and a notable amount of fiber. Even though the oil is removed, hemp protein powder actually still retains a good ratio of Omega oils and healthy fats. Hemp is technically a nut, so hemp protein powder has a distinct nutty taste and flavor that many people enjoy for gluten free baked goods. You can add hemp protein powder to your favorite baking recipes to give your treats a characteristically nutty, grainy taste — without any of the gluten.
People use protein supplements like protein powder to jumpstart muscle building and weight loss, as protein is one of the building blocks of muscle. The body needs protein to produce hormones, enzymes and other chemicals. For those seeking to build muscle mass, the essential amino acids — more specifically, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — in protein are used by the body to alleviate fatigue, improve athletic performance and stimulate muscle recovery after exercise.
To accomplish this, your protein doesn’t need gluten. If you’re gluten intolerant, you can get those gains and adequate amounts of protein without upsetting your stomach. Whether you choose whey protein, a plant protein (or a combination of plant proteins to get all those essential amino acids), your gluten free protein powder will help kickstart muscle building. The health benefits of gluten free protein powder are the same as any other protein powder. You shouldn’t let a gluten intolerance stop you from using a protein powder to get the most out of your workout.
So what’s the best gluten free protein powder for you? It all depends on your body type, fitness goals and any other dietary restrictions. We know that’s a lot to sort though, so let Gainful help.
Gainful allows you to create a personalized protein powder that’s tailored specifically for you. You start by taking Gainful’s quiz, select your preferences, dietary restrictions (whether you’re gluten free, lactose free, soy free or a combination of all three) and overall wellness goals. Then Gainful takes care of the rest. We keep your dietary restrictions and intolerances in mind when creating your customized protein blend.
Each month, you’ll receive an order of 28 servings of unflavored protein and 28 single-serving Flavor Boost sticks that you can mix into your drink to create a protein shake that satisfies your taste buds. (Craving a strawberry smoothie or a chocolate peanut butter milkshake? Our Flavor Boosts make taking a protein supplement feel like a treat — without any extra artificial sweeteners or additives.)
And if you’re worried or unsure about making dietary changes or incorporating a gluten free protein powder into your diet on your own? With Gainful, you’ll never have to do this alone: Each subscriber has unlimited access to a personal Registered Dietitian, who’s here to serve as your on-call nutritionist. Your R.D. will answer any questions you may have about gluten, grams of protein, pre- and post-workout supplements — anything at all that has to do with your wellness, fitness and nutritional journey.
As you know from the information above, there are tons of gluten free products and protein options out there, but taking the time to find the right one for you is worth it. Trust us — your digestive system will thank you.