What's in Your Gluten-Free Bread?
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
When you think of a gluten-free alternative to your favorite baked good, you probably think it’s a healthier alternative. No gluten automatically means healthier, right?
Unfortunately no. Gluten-free alternatives can still be packed with sugars, fats, and worst of all, emulsifiers. But what are emulsifiers? And how do they affect our health?
First, what’s in gluten-free bread?
If you’ve made the switch from regular to gluten-free (GF) bread, you’ve definitely also noticed the difference in texture and taste. Unfortunately, it’s very rare to find a GF dupe that tastes exactly like the gluten version.
A group of Australian researchers looked at the ingredients in some of the most popular GF brands of white sliced bread and compared them to two conventional white sliced bread brands. They found that the ingredients in GF bread can be lumped into 7 categories:
Flours & Starches → This category will impact the volume and structure of the bread, a lower-volume bread will be heavier and denser. Texture and taste are also heavily determined by the type of flour and starches used. GF breads often contain a combination of several different types of starches. A combination will produce a better volume and texture than the GF flours and starches will yield on their own. Examples of such flours are starches are below:
Tapioca starch- Tapioca starch is better for texture, but doesn’t yield good volume. A modified form of tapioca starch is often used in GF bread to help retain moisture and improve shelf life.
Maize starch- This starch can be used to increase volume, but can also cause a dry and crumbly texture.
Rice flour- Rice flour will not impact volume but will improve texture.
Protein → Most GF breads have added protein in the form of egg whites. The extra protein is necessary due to the low protein in the GF starches and flours. The egg proteins will also help to refine the texture of the bread, as well as improving its cohesion and springiness.
Fats & Oils → Canola oil and other vegetable oils are typically present in GF breads. The fats and oils help to improve the bread’s shelf life, moistness, volume, and softness. GF breads also typically have more fat than conventional breads, due to the increased amount of oil.
Gluten Substitutes → Gluten substitutes, like hydrocolloids, help to stabilize the structure of the bread, while also enhancing the consistency, texture, and moistness. Common hydrocolloids include vegetable gums.
Sugars → Sugar is just as commonly used in GF bread as it is in conventional bread. In fact, many GF bread alternatives actually have more sugar than their conventional counterparts. The extra sugar helps to mimic the sweetness and aroma of traditional, wheat bread.
Additives → Common additives include rising agents, preservatives, flavorings, aromas, and most importantly, emulsifiers. All these additives help the GF bread increase shelf life and mimic conventional bread.
Other ingredients → Like conventional bread, GF bread contains iodized salt to enhance the flavor. However, the researchers found that the GF bread was heavier than the regular bread, meaning it contained more salt per serving. Yeast is also used throughout all types of bread, though the GF bread contained less.
So, what are emulsifiers?
Essentially, emulsifiers help to combine ingredients that typically don’t mix. You can think of emulsifiers like mustard in a vinaigrette recipe- it will prevent the oil and water from separating. Emulsifiers can be found in everything. They are commonly added to salad dressings, causes, margarine, ice cream, puddings, baked goods, and bread.
In baked goods, like bread and cookies, emulsifiers help to keep the oil and water bond together. This will allow the fat to distribute evenly, producing a light, tender texture. Emulsifiers will also help prevent ice crystals from forming on ice cream and other frozen foods.
Examples of emulsifiers:
Some common emulsifiers are listed below:
Lecithin (E322) → This emulsifier is found naturally in vegetable oils and egg yolks. However, the form of lecithin found in processed foods is extracted from soybean or sunflower oil. When added to baked goods, lecithin will enable water and fat to combine. This will reduce the number of eggs and fat required in a recipe. Lecithin will also help the ingredients to distribute evenly, while also increasing volume and shelf-life.
Xanthan gum (E415) → Xanthan gum is an ingestible polysaccharide derived from the Xanthomonas Campestris bacteria. This is the bacteria that causes black rot on leafy vegetables (appetizing, right?). Xanthan gum is very commonly used in gluten-free baked goods as a replacement for gluten. This is because Xanthan gum will add stickiness to the dough.
Hydroxypropyl Methyl Cellulose (E464) → This emulsifier is present in virtually every commercial GF loaf of bread. It is a powder made through a chemical modification of cellulose, the main substance in plant cell walls. The powder is white, colorless, and odorless. Hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose is used to improve the volume, stability, elasticity, and retention of moisture in GF bread.
The problem with emulsifiers:
The potential complications with emulsifiers come to light through a study conducted in Atlanta. In this study, two common emulsifiers were added to the drinking water and food of lab mice. The mice soon began to display changes in the species of bacteria growing in their gut. The mice being fed emulsifiers had increased levels of inflammation-promoting bacteria and less beneficial microbes. For the mice being fed emulsifiers, the mucus layer of their intestinal wall had become colonized with mucus-eating bacteria. This thinner mucosal wall made it easier for dangerous pathogens to enter the intestinal tract.
Moreover, in comparison to the mice in the control group, the emulsifier-fed mice had:
higher blood sugar levels,
gained more weight and body fat,
ate more food,
had gastrointestinal inflammation,
and were found to be insulin resistant.
All of these symptoms of the emulsifier mice are very similar to a human condition known as metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by excessive abdominal fat, high blood pressure, increased “bad” LDL-cholesterol and decreased “good” HDL-cholesterol levels, and poor blood sugar control. Metabolic syndrome can also increase the risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It also increases your risk of stroke.
While it is not possible to look at the results of this study and directly correlate them to humans, one can hypothesize that emulsifiers could potentially cause harmful effects to human health. Moreover, there is thin evidence that emulsifiers do negatively affect human gastrointestinal health.
In humans, scientists have discovered a rough correlation between the consumption of emulsifiers and the development of Crohn’s Disease. But again, this research is preliminary and requires further study before a definitive conclusion can be reached.
Dr. Johnson’s take:
In her own diet, Dr. Johnson primarily avoids all processed GF baked goods. If you choose to buy GF baked goods, be sure to check the ingredients list for emulsifiers or high sugar or salt contents.
The healthiest way to stick to a gluten-free diet is to make your own baked goods! There are many easy and tasty recipes for gluten-free pizza crusts and bread.
The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!