Drop That Gluten-Free Cookie: How Food Companies Disguise Toxic Chemicals as “Natural Flavors”

The gluten-free diet is completely ridiculous and is in no way a proper approach to nutrition. Gluten is just the latest buzzword and many people probably have no idea what it really is. While gluten does have negative effects on the proper functioning of the digestive system in most people, simply eliminating it from the diet–and thinking this means we will be healthy–is a foolish misconception that some people have fallen into believing.

For example, something can be considered gluten-free and still contain MSG, artificial sweeteners and other detrimentally harmful food additives. Many gluten free foods even list “natural flavors” as one of their ingredients. This category can contain pretty much anything including MSG, which has been proven to have a negative impact on human health.

To have true and lasting health we need to cultivate the attitudes of detectives and seek out the truth about where our food is coming from, how it is produced and what it's made of. This can sound silly to a lot of people–or like a lot of work–but once we begin to educate ourselves it gets much easier and we become empowered to make choices that support our health and wellbeing.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is made up of two different protein molecules–called glutenin and gliadin–and is mostly found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten gives the “doughy” texture to bread and acts as a binding agents in foods. Think of gluten like food glue. Without gluten it becomes really hard to make certain ingredients stick together.

Why Gluten is Harmful to the Body.

The Problem with gluten is that is “confuses” the lining of the small intestine. The small intestine is like the national defense system for the body. It regulates which substances are allowed to enter into the bloodstream and which ones are queued up for elimination. In fact, the entire gut–the whole pathway between the mouth and the anus–is technically outside of the body because it is not directly connected to the bloodstream.

For example if we eat something containing a toxic chemical, the lining of the small intestines is able to identify this substance as harmful and send a signal for it to be eliminated from the body. The small intestinal wall can also recognize nutrients and facilitates their absorption into the bloodstream so that our cells can utilize them for energy production and other vital processes.

Gluten disrupts the proper functioning of this system. If the small intestine is the border control agency of the body, then gluten is like giving the border guards alcohol. They get confused and start letting the wrong people in! There are small spaces between the cells in the lining of the small intestine called “tight junctions” and the gliadin protein in gluten causes these “gateways” to break apart. [1]

This can cause what is called leaky gut syndrome and it means potentially toxic substances–including pathogenic bacteria and viruses–can enter the bloodstream. This makes the bodies immune system work extra hard to destroy and eliminate these substances, which wastes vital energy. The body also gets confused and can begin attacking proteins in healthy cells that are very similar to the gliadin protein found in gluten. When the body begins to attack its own cells the result is what is known as an autoimmune condition. The most common autoimmune condition linked to gluten sensitivity is celiac disease. [2]

So What’s Wrong With Going Gluten-Free?

If gluten is so obviously harmful to the proper functioning of the body in most people–and can even lead to a severe autoimmune condition–then what’s wrong with going gluten free? The issue is that some people seem to think that going gluten free automatically means the cultivation of a healthy diet. I call this the, “I bought it at the health food store syndrome”. Health food stores are great, but not everything on their shelves are healthy and nourishing foods. In fact something can easily be gluten free and still contain harmful food additives such as preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners. In short, gluten-free status is not a nutritional stamp of approval by any means.

The problem here isn’t gluten, although gluten has been proven to be harmful to the human body. Seeing the bigger picture we can start to understand that processed grains–and all processed foods for that matter–are the real culprit in this story. Most grains go through a process that is completely unnatural. The grains are treated with a number of chemicals and stripped of most of their nutritional value. Synthetic vitamins (which are way different than the naturally occurring vitamins in plants) and preservatives are then added back into the grains creating what is known as “fortified bread”. [3]

Most grains produced in the United States are also treated with glyphosate and it is incredibly difficult to find grain–including whole grains–that were not treated with the substance. This herbicide has been proven to have intense and severe health consequences–including being a cause of celiac disease–and is yet another reason to avoid most commercially produced grains, especially wheat. [4]

Gluten is Just the Latest Buzzword.

Whenever a new nutritional buzzword comes out like gluten food companies are quick to jump onboard with the new trend. Sure, these companies have eliminated gluten from a lot of their products in response to the gluten free craze, but has that really led to healthier options at the store? By reading the ingredients label on many of these gluten free items it becomes pretty clear that it hasn’t.

The same thing has happened many times before with other buzzwords like MSG, organic, low-calorie, fat-free, low-carb and sugar free. Sugar free is a great example of this because something that is technically sugar free might contain artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to diabetes among a long list of other negative health impacts. [5]

MSG can be Hidden in the Ingredients Label Under “Natural Flavors”.

MSG (Monosodium L-Glutamate) is another buzzword that a lot of people have heard of and can cause fairly immediate symptoms when ingested including burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain. [6] [7] Animal studies have also linked it to brain lesions, obesity, diabetes and inflammation. [8] [9] When MSG hit the mainstream media food companies were quick to remove it from labels, but did they really stop putting it into foods? Why would they, when MSG has been proven to increase the taste intensity of foods–which causes people to buy more of these tasty snacks–resulting in increased profits for food companies. [10]

MSG is now hidden inside the ingredient categories called “natural flavors” and “natural flavorings”. These categories can contain pretty much anything–including animal products–based on the legal definitions of these terms quoted below.

“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional." [11]

This definition coming directly from the FDA makes it very clear that pretty much anything can be considered “natural flavors”. MSG is produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. [12] Going back to the quoted definition of natural flavors makes it pretty clear that MSG can be legally included under this label, and it is. While at first glance it may appear that a lot of the sources of "natural flavors" are indeed natural, the industrial processes used to extract these flavors can turn things found in nature into toxic chemicals like MSG very quickly. 

The Attitude we Need to have to Stay Healthy in the Modern World.

It would be totally understandable to read all of this and feel completely overwhelmed. The good news is that there is a simple way to avoid all of this stuff–including gluten–and that is to consume whole foods produced by sustainable and truly natural agricultural and farming practices.

I think of myself as a food detective–and this is seriously the attitude we need to adopt if we are at all interested in our health–and do my best to seek out high quality, nutrient dense foods free from chemicals. It can be difficult at the beginning, especially in modern society with so many processed foods on the market. When I first started looking into these things I remember feeling overpowered. Now, having educated myself, I feel empowered to make the best possible choices to support my health and wellbeing.

If we continue to buy processed foods containing chemicals then these companies will continue to produce them. It really is that simple. Every time we buy something at the store we are voting for that product–and any of it’s ingredients–to be produced. It’s like a game between us and tricky food companies where we have to find out what is really in our food! I’m all in for playing because I want to be healthy, feel vital and live a long and happy life. So next time you reach for that gluten free cookie, take a moment and check the ingredients, because you might be surprised at what you discover.


  1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-myers-md-/effects-of-gluten-on-the-body_b_3672275.html
  2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016508599001389
  3. http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/enriched-bread-2900.html
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3945755/
  5. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/33/11/2477.short
  6. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091674997800085
  7. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/163/3869/826
  8. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/164/3880/719
  9. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1967.tb09715.x/abstract
  10. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896841107001400
  11. http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=501.22
  12. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm328728.htm