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Is Going Gluten-Free a Greener Way to Go?

Gluten-free foods are becoming increasingly popular. As a result, powerhouse crops like  wheat have seen their consumption diminished. Why choose to eat gluten-free? The principal reason for eliminating gluten from your diet is celiac disease. This is a genetic disease that is an autoimmune illness. One of its principal characteristics is an intolerance of gluten. 

Yet less than 1% of people have the disease, still, some people may suffer from a simple gluten intolerance. This means their bodies have difficulty breaking down the gluten protein. Others may be allergic to wheat. What do these folks do with wheat in so many food products? They look for alternative foods, kinds of flour, and snacks – and luckily there are many big brands that now produce completely allergy-free snacks that are suitable for those who need to avoid gluten. 

Gluten protein is found in cereals like wheat, barley, and rye which translates into quite a few baked goods. It’s also found in malt. There is no medical proof that people who do not have celiac disease benefit by eliminating gluten from their diet

Often substitutes for gluten will include flours formulated from potatoes, beans, coconut, or rice, and you may find some cereals that are processed to eliminate gluten content like oats. But if you don’t have a specific dietary need to eliminate gluten from your meals, is there another reason for eating gluten-free?

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Is Going Gluten-Free More Eco-Friendly?

There certainly is some evidence that reducing wheat production may be environmentally sound. Wheat is a mainstay of the agriculture industry and as such, it depends on the use of pesticides and significant water consumption. 

Consider that chemical pesticides use oil to keep the bugs at bay and these chemicals don’t just land on intended crops but can be carried quite some distance by winds. Rainfall can aid in pesticides penetrating the soil and they can end up in waterways, and many of the chemicals do not degrade at a rapid pace remaining where they land for years only to be ingested by local wildlife and absorbed by vegetation.

What’s more, the Journal of Life Cycle Assessment’s research which considered cultivation, production and preparation, packaging, and eventual transport has indicated that a single loaf of white bread produces 1,244g of CO2 in its carbon footprint when sold in plastic that is non-biodegradable even if refrigerated or toasted. By comparison, whole meal bread loaves which contain higher amounts of gluten only produce 977g of CO2 if they are sold in paper sacks.

However, another aspect is that many gluten-free advocates increase their intake of fruits and vegetables meaning that much of their diet can potentially be cultivated closer to home depending on where one resides. Eating locally means less packaging and less transportation, two aspects with a substantial impact on global ecology.

If you still want some type of flour for baked goods and kinds of pasta, consider alternatives such as rice flour which is a cereal that is considered more eco-friendly. It doesn’t need pesticides and impacts the environment less when correctly milled. Potato flour is similar.

What About Corn Flour?

Corn crops, like coconut, use a lot of water and require heavy fertilization. Fertilizers can end up in local waterways and aquifers. This affects entire marine ecosystems negatively. Advances in irrigation technology may save water, but there is still work to do on limiting chemical fertilization.

Quinoa crops, on the other hand, are very environmentally friendly as they produce less CO2 than even rice, but they must be transported long distances. What you save with the crop type, you may lose to transport necessities.

Is Gluten-Free Food Greener?

It can be if the cultivation and milling processes are done correctly. Industrial agricultural enterprises also need to invest more in fertilization and irrigation technology to ensure that crops have a lower impact on the environment. However, packaging and transportation challenges remain as so much food must be moved long distances to reach consumers worldwide. Processing, packaging, and transporting can all create larger carbon footprints and emit more carbon dioxide into the air than the actual cultivation of the crops.

Then there are a few more potential environmental consequences when farmers switch to gluten-free grains. If demand rises exponentially and rapidly, farmers may not be able to allow the soil time to rest and recover if crops are replanted year after year. With soil quality depletion, erosion increases, pests, and diseases increase, and harvest yields become smaller.

All things considered, gluten-free foods are no worse for the planet and may in some cases be a bit better during cultivation. If you want to make a difference, buy locally cultivated foods from reputable sources that limit pesticide and fertilizer use. Hone your baking skills to use local flours to reduce transportation impact and use reusable containers and wrappings.

Should you eliminate gluten from your diet? If you have a medical reason, yes. To save the planet it’s more about how crops are cultivated, packaged, and transported that will immediately make a difference. If you prefer to consume gluten-free products, it is important to ensure that these crops are sustainably produced and you as the consumer can communicate your demands for greener sustainability when purchasing food products.