I’ve discussed the labels vegan and non-dairy already but now I want to shed some light on the labels “cholesterol free” and “gluten free”. Let’s start with “cholesterol free”
When a food is labelled cholesterol free…
Cholesterol is confusing to a lot of people. The reality is, to the average person there is little understanding about the role cholesterol has in our bodies.
We need cholesterol for the health of every cell membrane, for your brain cells, your sex hormones and more.Dr. Mark Hyman
Cholesterol plays an essential role in our bodies as it makes up our cell membranes. In other words, we have to have cholesterol. The cool thing is, our liver makes cholesterol. We also consume cholesterol in our food. For a very comprehensive look at cholesterol read this article by Dr. Josh Axe as for now, we’re just discussing the purpose of the label.
To put it simply, if it didn’t have a liver, it doesn’t have cholesterol. What does this mean? Well, you’ll typically see “cholesterol free” on vegetable oil packaging. This is to encourage the consumer to purchase the product as typically, cholesterol containing foods are seen negatively. What if I told you all plant oils are naturally cholesterol-free? And the label is just there for marketing. In addition, these oils that are labelled cholesterol free could actually (in theory) increase your risk of atherosclerosis by increasing plaque build up in your arteries (plaque is hardened cholesterol and fats that stick to the walls of arteries) because they are often high-omega 6 inflammatory oils.
The next time you see “cholesterol-free” on a label, think critically about it. Did the food come from, or is it made with animal products? If so, it should naturally contain cholesterol. If it contains animal products yet is claiming to be cholesterol-free, I’d put it back on the shelf as a) the company is using false advertising or b) they have some how processed it even further to remove the cholesterol* (I can’t say I am certain this can even be done) Is the food totally plant based such as applesauce or orange juice? Well then of course it’s cholesterol free and you know the label is just there to try and encourage your purchase.
When a food is labelled gluten free…
This one is a little trickier. Those with Celiac Disease or an intolerance to gluten must consume gluten free foods so of course they will be reading labels. For those who cannot consume gluten, or choose not to, the label reading might stop after the words “gluten-free”. The problem with this is, the ingredients have to be looked at. Typically, gluten-free foods are made with starches rather than fibre containing flours. Potato starch, tapicoa starch, rice starch, corn starch, the list goes on. These starches are refined versions of their original food and have had the fibre removed. When the fibre is removed, the impact on blood sugar levels is much higher meaning gluten-free foods made mostly from starches could raise blood sugar levels rapidly. Now, you might be thinking “but I’m not diabetic so why worry” well, when our blood sugar levels rapidly rise they rapidly fall, leaving us hungrier. When this happens we eat more of (typically) the same food as before meaning more gluten-free starches. The process happens again.
You can absolutely enjoy gluten-free foods, even those made with starches. For those almost entirely starch based, enjoy with moderation. When shopping, read ingredient labels and look for gluten-free ingredients such as:
- Buckwheat (not related to wheat)
- Oatmeal (certified gluten free)
- Flax meal
- Chickpea flour
- Lentil Flour
- Black Bean Flour
- Almond flour
These ingredients will have much more fibre. You can also read the nutrition facts panel to see how much fibre is contained in each serving. Look for 3-5g minimum. The fibre (and not to mention protein from these food ingredients) will keep your blood sugar balanced which will keep you fuller for longer and prevent you from reaching for a second and third helping of gluten-free sugar cookies.
To summarize, just because a food says it’s gluten-free or cholesterol-free does not mean it’s the most nutrient dense choice available. Always read the ingredients and if you have to second-guess your choice, put it back and choose more whole foods in it’s place. If you’re good in the kitchen, you could even make your own by purchasing fibre-rich flours at your local bulk food or health food store.
I want to leave you with this article by Meghan Telpner about “healthwashing” and labeling foods in a certain way to make them appear healthy. It is very comprehensive and provides a step-by-step approach to determine if the food has been healthwashed.