Is Gluten the Enemy?

Mar 08, 2024
Is Gluten the Enemy?

Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years. Around 20-30% of the US population follows a gluten-free diet, whereas only about 1% of people around the world have celiac disease (1). Celebrities, social media influencers, and self-proclaimed wellness experts swear by the benefits of going gluten-free – but is the diet beneficial for everyone? Let’s take a look at the facts.

Defining ‘gluten’ and ‘celiac disease’

Gluten is a general name for the naturally occurring proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It acts as a binder that keeps food together – think of a loaf of fresh bread rising after being kneaded, or pizza dough being stretched, ready for toppings. Gluten is commonly found in foods like bread, pasta, pizza, and cereal. Gluten is also found in malted beverages like beer, and in meat substitutes like field roast.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten-containing foods that results in inflammation in the body. Side effects can be severe and include fatigue, bloating, digestive problems, malnutrition, and intestinal damage. However, some people who test negative for celiac disease experience similar unpleasant symptoms when they eat gluten. People who are gluten sensitive may have wheat allergies or gluten intolerance, conditions that can range from mild to severe and are estimated to affect 6-7% of the US population.

How do I know if I have celiac disease, a gluten allergy, or gluten intolerance?
If your health care provider suspects you have celiac disease, they typically recommend three avenues of diagnosis: blood testing (which tests for antibodies), genetic testing (if you have a family history of celiac disease), and biopsy (which tests for damage to your small intestine). If you’ve tested negative for celiac disease but suspect you have a wheat allergy, your provider will typically carry out blood tests to identify your body’s reaction to any amount of gluten. Gluten intolerance is a little harder to diagnose, as there is no blood test that can confirm the condition. Instead, it is typically determined by receiving negative antibody tests for celiac disease or wheat allergy, and feeling much better when you stop eating gluten.

Should I go gluten-free if I don’t have these conditions?
Despite the negative media attention, there is no substantive data that suggests gluten lacks a place in a balanced diet for those without celiac disease or severe gluten allergy/intolerance. In fact, the opposite may be true. A study of over 100,000 non-celiac people showed that there was no association between long-term gluten consumption and risk of heart disease (2). Actually, these findings suggest that for non-celiacs, avoiding gluten may actually increase the risk of heart disease, due to reduced consumption of whole grains.

Are all grains created equal?
Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are important macronutrients that provide our bodies with energy. When we think of carbs as a food source, we typically think of grains and starches like bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta. Some carbs (like rice and potatoes) are naturally gluten-free, whereas others (like bread and pasta) are traditionally made from wheat, which naturally contains gluten.  

In recent years, gluten-free options for many naturally gluten-containing foods have become available, which is great news for people with celiacs or gluten allergy/intolerance. However, it’s important to keep in mind that just because a product is gluten-free doesn’t mean it is any healthier for most people. For example, potato chips are naturally gluten-free (and can be a delicious part of a balanced diet!) but they are not considered a health food. Likewise, it is easy to make brownies or cookies gluten-free by substituting rice flour for wheat flour. One of the drawbacks to substituting gluten-free flour for wheat flour is that often the recipe will necessitate adding more sugar to keep the product tasty and soft without the regular flour which binds moisture better than gluten-free flours. But because this doesn’t change the nutritional profile of the food by adding micronutrients, fiber, protein or healthy fats, the gluten-free variety of baked goods shouldn’t be considered any healthier than the original.

It’s important to consider that robust research has linked the consumption of whole grains (including those that naturally contain gluten!) with improved health outcomes. Whole grains are minimally processed, which allows them to contain essential nutrients, fiber and protein from the bran and germ. An umbrella review (a type of scientific study that evaluates widely distributed data and is considered one of the highest levels of evidence) suggests that whole grains are beneficial in the prevention of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal, pancreatic, and gastric cancers (3).

In contrast to whole grains are refined grains, which  are stripped of the bran and germ, causing the grain to lose many health-promoting nutrients and potentially send blood sugar soaring. When choosing the best grains for your health, the evidence suggests that whole grains (naturally gluten-free or not) have far superior benefits than refined grains (even if they are naturally gluten-free!). 

Are JAMBARs gluten free?
All JAMBAR flavors contain naturally gluten-free whole grains like oat bran, quinoa, sorghum and brown rice, which are rich in vitamins and minerals as well as soluble fiber, which can help control blood sugar levels. JAMBAR was created to provide delicious, healthy fuel to people with varying dietary needs and desires, which is why we are proud to offer completely gluten-free as well as low-gluten options.  

Our Chocolate Cha Cha, Jammin’ Jazzleberry, Tropical Trio, and Musical Mango JAMBARs are all completely gluten-free. Our Malt Nut Melody JAMBARs have trace amounts of gluten from one of our ingredients, organic barley malt extract, which gives the bar a rich malt flavor.

Overall Takeaway
With the exception of people with celiac disease or severe gluten allergy/intolerance, those seeking to improve their health through diet should focus on incorporating nutritious, whole grains rather than avoiding gluten. Variety in grain consumption is also a good option, whether the grain is gluten free or not. A diverse diet full of a variety of carbs has been shown to be a healthy way to eat.

Julia is the daughter of JAMBAR founder Jennifer Maxwell and has an MA in Medical Anthropology and an MSc in Health Psychology. She ran track and cross country at Stanford and remains an avid runner, most recently finishing 2nd in the 2023 Dipsea Race. Her secret training tool is pushing her son Henry on local roads and trails in his jogger.


  1. Lebwohl B, Sanders DS, Green PHR. Coeliac disease. Lancet. 2018;391(10115):70– 81. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)31796-8
  2. Lebwohl B, Cao Y, Zong G, Hu FB, Green PHR, Neugut AI, Rimm EB, Sampson L, Dougherty L, Giovannucci E, Willett WC, Sun Q, Chan AT. Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2017 May 2;357:j1892.
  3. McRae MP. Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses. J Chiropr Med. 2017 Mar;16(1):10-18. doi: 10.1016/j.jcm.2016.08.008. Epub 2016 Nov 18. PMID: 28228693; PMCID: PMC5310957.