Gluten-Free, Multi-Grain, and Organic Junk Food

When shopping for food there are quite a few confusing buzz words out there that can easily be misleading. Just because a product says it’s multi-grain, 7-grain, gluten-free, or organic does not mean it isn’t highly processed junk food. First and foremost, always read the ingredient label (as opposed to relying on the health claims on the front of the package). That is the only way to know what’s really in your food, and what you find may be surprising.

avoiding organic junk food on 100 Days of Real Food

  • Multi-Grain / 7-Grain: This claim simply means the product contains more than one type of grain (or in some cases as many as 7 grains). Some examples of different grains are wheat, barley, rye, spelt, rice, oats, and corn. Just because a food product is made with more than one of these grains does not automatically mean any of them are whole grain…and nutritionally speaking there is a big difference between refined and whole grains. For more on this topic check out: Understanding Grains and Nutrients in Refined vs. Whole Grains.

    Product Example: Snyder’s Multi-Grain Pretzel Sticks
    These pretzels contain more refined white flour (labeled as enriched wheat flour) and sweetener (labeled as molasses) than whole-grain flours.
  • Gluten-Free: Obviously the gluten-free label is important for those with an allergy, sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, but just because a food is labeled as gluten-free does not mean it isn’t highly processed. Gluten-free simply means that grains with gluten (like wheat, barley and rye) were not used when making the product. But just like the multi-grain example above the alternate grains may or may not be whole grain products…you must read the ingredient label to find out!

    Product Example: DeBoles Gluten-Free Rice Pasta
    This pasta is made from refined “rice” and contains no whole grains (like brown rice).
  • Organic: Even if a food product is labeled as certified organic it could still be made with sugar, white flour, and other refined ingredients. Just because the cookies are organic does not mean they aren’t junk food!

    Product Example: Late July Organic Vanilla Bean Cookies
    These cookies may be organic, but they still contain refined white flour (labeled as organic wheat flour), refined sweeteners (labeled as organic evaporated cane juice, organic brown rice syrup, and organic evaporated cane juice syrup), and additives (including soy lecithin and natural flavors).

The moral of the story is…always read the ingredient label to know what’s really in your food!

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81 thoughts on “Gluten-Free, Multi-Grain, and Organic Junk Food”

  1. Thank you Lisa for this informative post. I completely agree with you that checking labels is quite important as we all can fall prey to advertiser’s gimmick. I am a mom of four, so healthy eating has always been on top of my list and I always check labels for the ingredients and calories count.

  2. Yes! Reading labels is so important. Marketing folks are talented at trying to get you to buy something simply by what it says on the front of the box. Thanks again for the great reminders!

  3. Greetings,

    I’m new to the website, but was just wondering if people on a gluten-free diet eat bread of any kind? I have tried Rice bread, but it’s texture is not the same as other bread. Do most people on a gluten-free diet just totally avoid bread?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi S.P. I completely depends on the person. I am gluten free and only eat gluten free bread on occasion. It is hard to find a GF bread with quality ingredients and good texture but I do toast some from time to time. :)

    2. Canyon bakery bread is hands down the most like real bread.
      The other breaks need to be toasted to be palatable or not crumble apart. Canyon bakery bread u can eat either way

  4. Hi Lisa
    Many of your recipes use whole wheat flour. what is your best suggestion as a substitute for someone who needs to cook gluten free?
    Thanks!

  5. This is great information which I will share. We just went officially gluten free after a blood test determined my son’s allergy. I am finding most “Gluten Free” products are just expensive junk food! I ordered some coconut flour and will be making him treats at home now. We will save the store bought stuff for special occasions.

    1. I have celiac and some advice. I had a very bad GI reaction to coconut and almond flour. Start with small amounts so you can test your tolerance and avoid the same issue. I just got some Otto’s cassava flour to try. I guess it makes good tortillas. It’s supposed to be one of the easiest to tolerate.

  6. weird question maybe but if we are not looking for ‘enriched wheat flour’ what are we looking for? i get so confused sometimes, aren’t we looking for wheat flour? and if it says that why would it automatically make it WHITE flour?

  7. My rule for processed foods is that I have to be able to recognize and pronounce every ingredient, and I have to be able to buy everything separately and construct it myself at home. The rest is rather loose for me. I don’t mind using granulated cane sugar though I’d prefer to use honey or maple syrup. I try not to ingest white flour as a rule, but as a baker I realize that whole-wheat flour pretty much destroys gluten and in products with yeast in them, white flour is often added to give a nice rise. I don’t personally do that in my own baking, but I can see why people do. The only two processed things I buy with any regularity are organic soy milk (because I don’t care for cow’s milk) and Annie’s Bunny Grahams (because I have a big sweet tooth and I love them). They are the only wheat product I eat that contains white flour, and I’m okay with that. I don’t count them as “junk food.” There are much worse things I could be eating.

  8. A food allergy test I took states that I can eat gluten but not wheat. Problem is, I love wheat anything!! What kind of non-wheat bread, cracker or pasta is even out there? Any suggestions are greatly appreciated!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. I found this article to be helpful: http://celiacdisease.about.com/od/commoncomplicationsofcd/f/Wheat-Allergy-vs-Gluten-Allergy.htm as it sorts through the difference between wheat and gluten allergy. If you are allergic to wheat only, then you have all the other grain and grain flours to choose from. Oats, barley, rye as well as the gluten free ones such as millet, amaranth, brown rice, quinoa, etc. To avoid wheat contamination, it becomes even more imperative to avoid processed foods. ~Amy

  9. Do you have any gluten-free 100% whole grain bread (or tortilla) recipes? I have been looking everywhere for some and they almost all contain some sort of junk. I am currently nursing my second child and while she is not celiac, she has a really high sensitivity to wheat/gluten and it causes her a lot of tummy and sleep trouble.

  10. Katy DT, not to answer for Lisa, but my opinion :-) White flour is wheat flour (that has been bleached, stripped, etc. See her post on that for further explanation.) It is WHOLE WHEAT that you are looking for on a lable. Whole wheat flour contains all parts of the wheat, whereas white flour (which is flour from wheat…) does not contain all parts of the wheat. Probably not the best explanation, but hopefully that helps a little. :-) Check out her post on the subject for more info.

    1. In addition to Gina’s info, where I live, whole wheat does not always mean whole grain whole wheat. Just something to be aware of.

  11. I agree with a previous poster that as long as you are reasonably aware, you have to make some degree of personal choice/judgment call. Some people believe eating meat is unethical, unhealthy (as supported by some science). Other people believe legumes and grains have some unfavorable chemical reactions (as supported by some science). But at the end of the day, I think the 100 day “guidelines” is a good rule of thumb to live by – and we can all agree less processed, more veggies, are good for the body. Beyond that, the details (paleo, gluten free, vegan, etc) are a matter of personal preference. All of us have varying amounts of time and $ to put into this effort and can’t necessarily do everything perfectly, or from scratch.

    Mental health is important to maintain on this journey – don’t get too tied up in restrictions or anger – try to get close to your food and its sources, and enjoy it!

    1. I’m a huge fan of RAW, local, honey. Great (raw only) for a billion reasons, but also local for help with allergies.

  12. Brown rice is high in phytic acid, an “anti-nutrient” that blocks absorption of vitamins and minerals (here’s one website that touches on it – http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/brown-rice-really-better-white-rice?page=all). Same with whole grains that are not sprouted prior to consumption. White rice is more easily digestible than brown. So yeah, you pretty much can’t win. There’s a ton of research out there both for and against whole grains. I’m reading the Nourished Metabolism right now and it goes against a lot of what I’ve believed for a long time. It’s so hard to sort out the truth from all of the info out there. I think there’s something to that saying, “Moderation is key.” People just need to do their own research and decide what’s best for THEIR family and stop judging others for what they do with theirs (not saying Lisa is judging, just in general). Of course organic junk food is still junk food, but at least it doesn’t have fake chemicals, colors, HFCS, etc. in it. That’s the way I look at it. If I want to give my kids a treat I’d rather give them organic graham crackers than the stuff with all the chemicals and fake stuff in it.

  13. I am trying to cut out processed foods. I have fallen into the busy mom, go for easy rut. So brown rice is good for you? I literally have it on my stove right now. So if brown rice isn’t good, what kind of rice is?

    1. Shannon, feel good about yourself – brown rice is a great alternative to white rice for a more nutrient dense food. There have been high levels of arsenic found in certain brown rice and some people right now are anti-grain of any type (paleo). However, it’s all about balance, finding what’s right for you. We all agree eating a lot of veggies is good… beyond that there are so many conflicting studies, opinions, you really have to just pick your battles! :)
      If you don’t have any digestive problems with brown rice, and you’re not eating it every day all day, you’re probably ok.

  14. Always good information to remember, and I agree with your post. I am frequently annoyed by mass-marketed products labeled with nutritional buzz words (in particular whole-grains).
    My problem is not at all with your post, but rather the comments you’ve received. I think people need to remember that what is best for them and their families is not always possible or best for everyone. For example, while many of us might consider white rice “junk food”, sometimes we may also find a need or reason to use it. I think people need to keep a level head and don’t be judgmental of other’s lifestyles. Most of us are doing what we can to eat healthy unprocessed foods while still balancing the realities of living in the modern world. We have enough guilt and confusion about what to eat without everyone judging everything we eat and making us feel bad by doing things like calling even homemade cookies for our children “junk food”. Keep a level head and be nice to others!

  15. Virginia stephens

    It is always best to mill your own wheat, make your breads and baked goods. Learn to cook from scratch, seems to be a lost art these days.

  16. And I’ve heard brown rice contains carcinogens! You can’t win, really! Be healthy, be smart, eat in moderation.

  17. Labeling the DeBoles pasta as “junk food” is a little misleading (it only has 2 ingredients and neither of those are high fructose corn syrup or anything terrible).
    Also, most of the readers here likely know that cookies of any kind are “junk food” but are looking to give our kids something a little better for them while still giving them a treat once in a while. An organic oreo here and there makes them less likely to eat 10 normal oreos at a kid’s birthday party.
    I appreciate the information, but this post may be a bit too picky?

    1. Good points, Dee. But, I think the purpose of this post is to encourage us to realize that the “buzzwords” don’t mean “health food.” So yes, eating the DeBoles pasta once in awhile is probably fine, but it probably shouldn’t be consumed EVERY time you eat pasta.

    2. Aubrey, I totally agree about the buzzwords (tons of candy etc is “gluten free” and I have friends that think anything vegetarian is healthy!). I guess my issue was just that someone serving a dinner of rice pasta with veggies isn’t really serving their kids “junk”–it just may not be the BEST option. There are a wide range of foods between junk and healthy and I would say these fall inbetween. (Healthy=whole, organic foods made at home and junk= mcdonalds with fries and a candy bar for dessert).

      I do really appreciate that the author pointed out that gluten free is important for people with celiac. I do not have celiac but I have severe stomach problems that make white rice easier to digest than brown rice, so I often buy the “less healthy” white rice to serve with our (otherwise organic and homemade) meals. It is definitely all about balance.

      1. Dee, your comment is not unfounded. I too struggle with whole grains and find white flour and rice easier to digest. I would also recommend giving Anthony Colpo a read in regards to this issue (http://anthonycolpo.com/healthy-whole-grains/). You can just Google him and search his website for his articles on whole grains, if you don’t want to click on the link provided. To each their own, but I find his judgement of the whole-grain theory to be interesting.

    1. By definition they cannot. However, there is not testing required to prove they are non-GMO to be organic certified, so an unethical company could claim they were.

      Personally, I feel pretty good just going by the Organic label to know I am most likely avoiding them. If one slips in there now and then, better than having them all the time. I, however, feel the same way about things as white flour, sugar, etc. When I bake from scratch, I use organic cane sugar and organic white flour…we understand cookies are junk food and eat them in moderation. I choose to eat organic and to eat little processed food due to food allergies and sensitivities my son and I have, not because I think that I should never eat a treat.

  18. Now, I have learned about the whole wheat thing about 10 years ago (went on south beach diet) and what shocked me was that just because bread is dark colored and says whole wheat does not mean the bread was made with ONLY whole wheat flour. Some manufactures actually add food coloring to their bread to make us think its all whole wheat. Now, this may seam like its not, but it IS legal. So what you should ALWAYS look for is “100 % whole wheat” and read the label, simply “whole wheat” says that there is SOME whole wheat added to the process. I know i know its depressing.

  19. This is even harder in Canada – we have an obscure labelling law (and only in Canada) that allows up to 70% of the germ to be removed and still call it “100% whole wheat”.

    According to the Health Canada website “Whole wheat bread is made with whole wheat flour. As sold in Canada, whole wheat flour may have much of the germ removed. Therefore, 100% whole wheat bread may not be whole grain – however, it remains a nutritious choice that provides dietary fibre not found in white bread”.

    But no one knows this – so they assume like all other countries world, that they’re getting 100% of the whole grain.

    Canadians might want to check this out: http://www.fundamentalsofhealth.ca/2012/08/how-%e2%80%9cwhole%e2%80%9d-are-your-whole-grains/

    1. Holey guacamole, Kim! That is totally crazy! I live in Canada and had NO idea. I need to be GF, so it doesn’t really impact my diet, if it is only wheat that has this lovely loophole. I do but some WW things for my daughter and husband though, so that is really discouraging. Looks like I will be doing more shopping in the states!

  20. Changing how you grocery shop is a long learning process, it can no longer be a grab what you always bought and go. This can be difficult with children in the cart anxious to leave. I recently gave up gluten and never felt better. Those of you reading about this are right, wheat especially whole grains are not your friend. Neither is lactose in milk. Please do yourselves and family no more harm with these. Educating yourselves on the harm they do to our digestive tract will save you the trouble I am having in my 50’s. Fortunately with Whole Foods and Trader Joes and similar shops we now have so many more grains to choose from. Start now while you are young and you will discover what the rest of the world has already known, that rice and quinoa, tapioca flours are so much better for you and full of protein. In addition these store have printed lists at the service counter of gluten free foods to help you plan your shopping trip. Pick one up, do your homework and live better!

  21. Lisa, I went to Earth Fare in my first attempt at buying some real food…I was completely overwhelmed! All I wanted was some real grass-fed cheese, whole grain pasta, or something I’d been reading about, you know…(I’m just learning about all of this) but I was overwhelmed by boxes and boxes of “organic” processed food, or “gluten-free”, or “vegan”, or “soy”, or even “non-dairy cheese”…all I wanted was some REAL food…obviously, non-cheese cheese…isn’t real… I understand many people’s need for those things-I’m not knocking that- I’m just saying I was so overwhelmed-I really wanted to love that store! I have two small kids so I feel like I can’t read every label in the store-I was overwhelmed, I just got a few boxes of cereal, and some snacks (NOT what I came in there for ha ha) and left…is this normal?

  22. Lisa, I love how you described “multigrain”! I agree that these labels give consumers a false sense of healthiness of foods — it seems unjust and certainly dishonest. Here’s a post on my take on “gluten-free” and how it may relate to weight loss, and provides HEALTHY options for those who want to experiment with gluten-free :) Wonder about Wheat and Weight Loss?: http://fresh-you.blogspot.com/2012/03/wonder-about-wheat-and-weight-loss.html
    Also, your posts on whole wheat/grain are awesome! The visuals on the refined v. whole grains really tell the message!! https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/10/17/nutrients-in-refined-vs-whole-grains/
    Have a great day!

  23. Have you heard of Tami Credicott? When we found out about my son’s allergies I found a cook book by her called, “The Healthy Gluten Free Life.” It caters to people with wheat, soy, dairy, egg allergies. She talks about how when they found out about her husbands celiac disease that she also realized that you could still be very unhealthy even on a gluten free diet. She, like you Lisa, encourages all organic, free range and real products. She uses honey and syrup as sweeteners. It could really come in handy figuring out the science of baking when you can’t use wheat. I probably wouldn’t recommend it if you are avoiding wheat for reasons other than allergies or illness because a lot of it is baking just with other flours but we love it.

  24. I was wondering the same thing :) I started reading this same book just after I had started making many recipes with whole wheat flour. Now I’m worried moving over to consuming so much whole wheat isn’t best. Especially because I have a history of Endometriosis. My husband also has Psoriosis. Its very frustrating trying to figure out what’s best, besides the obvious fruits, veggies, and organic meat :/

  25. speaking of gluten. Wondering if you have read the book “Wheat belly”? Wondering what your thoughts are on all this gluten sensitivity in people lately?

  26. I agrree with Sophia. If it comes in a box, can or bag it is, most likely, highly processed. Just seems best to stick with whole foods.

  27. Sorry to sound nasty or something but, why is it that people who can read don’t already know this? This info has been in the news for years and years.

  28. This post is great! I have always read some labels to make sure food is vegetarian, but your site has made me read every label in the supermarket and there have definitely been some surprises! I have always preferred the taste of homemade food, and even more so now that I know it doesn’t have all that crap in it.

  29. This is great. But I would go one step farther with it. Be sure when you do buy processed foods-even the clean ones-that they are free of GMOs. For example, triscuits-while passing the 5 ingredient rule and are whole grain, are made with GMO soybean oil. This is a highly dangerous and toxic ingredient. Foods that are non-gmo verified or organic do not use genetically engineered ingredients and are far better for your intestinal health.

  30. Thank you for this a lot of kiddos at my preschool come in with the organic junk food with thier parents telling us its super healthy for them to eat that. Organic doesn’t always mean better. I can make a better chocolate chip cookie at home with my own ingreedients and substitues like whole wheat flour, apple sauce and egg whites and real sugar than the organic late july packaged cookies.

    For the other poster its not as hard to make things yourself if you have a well stocked kitchen and take a few extra minuets a night. I make all one or 2 things while I make dinners each night and I prep lunches for the next morning so they are grab and go. Its all about planning I try to map out our meals, and such and what snacks I am going to make. I keep 1-2 prepared snacks each week like granola bars, or cookies or things like that that I make. Then our other snacks are fruits, veggies, yogurts that I freeze or applesauce. The snack list on here is a great one. I spend about 1-3 hours a week on a Saturday or Sunday I prepare my week. I cut my fruits, I cut my veggies I can, I freeze what needs to be frozen so its fast to put together.

  31. What’s crazy is that most of my colleagues are highly educated people, but they are stunned when I tell them that ” no, that muffin is not healthy because it’s says multi-grain on the plastic wrap”….same goes with “multi-grain” bagels from the caffeteria…great topic! I will have some of my co-workers read it!

  32. I have teenagers so our house is always stocked with chips. Chips are junk food. I don’t expect it to be healthy. That said we eat chips in moderation. I like my tortilla chips too. The important thing is to not delude ourselves into thinking they are a health food just because of clever wording on the package. I just did a product review on my website on “healthier chips and party snack foods”. My focus when choosing chips/packaged snackfood is clean ingredients, gmo-free since chips are a particularly genetically modified mess, and then I like my chips to have a little fiber goodness. The way I look at it, is that my teens will have yucky chips supplied to them by their friends. Therefore, I buy them and stay in control of the chemicals.

  33. unfortunately reading labels is not enough. There are so many loopholes in food labels that manufacturers can get away with almost anything. For example milk with added vitamins doesn’t need to list what preservatives are in the vitamins they add. Another example is strawberry yogurt doesn’t have to list Red #40 was added to the strawberries before the yogurt manufacturer received them.

  34. Great article. The rule of thumb I tell my patients is that if it comes in a wrapper, bag, or box, it’s most likely processed (with a few exceptions) and should be avoided…regardless of what it says in the ads. The misleading jargon they use should indeed be illegal.

  35. Ok, for us “lazy” ladies :) I would love a list of substitutions for these items that are “junk”. There is no way I can make all of our snacks from scratch at home, and I know that even at the “health food store” there are tons of misleading products. I would love a “cheat sheet” of what IS true to to its claims..if there even is such a thing :)

    1. I’m pretty sure Lisa has a post somewhere on this site with substitutions and healthy snack items. Triscuits have become a regular grocery list item in our house.

    2. For starters, the 5-ingredient rule is great. If an item has more than 5 ingredients (or ay ingredients you can’t pronounce) than it is junk.

  36. It doesn’t seem fair that things can be allowed to be so misleading. It is the world in which be live, so we have to assume responsibility. We must read labels! Thanks for breaking this down. I plan to refer some friends so they can get a better grasp on what it is I have been saying for so long!

  37. Love your posts on eating healthy! I have started looking at the items I buy from the store. WOW, what an eye opener! I have STOPPED purchasing a lot of the items just because they are NOT HEALTHY!!

    Thanks for opening my eyes and helping us/me along the way.

    :)

  38. One almost has to expect anything packaged is “junk food”. People make a living marketing products so we buy them thinking the foods are good for us. We all need to read labels! It really goes back to basics-eat what is grown out of the ground.

  39. Angela @ninemoremonths

    I always look at the ingredients when purchasing snacks for the kids. I try to make my own as much as possible, but I’m human and I don’t always have time. But half of the time I end up putting stuff back on the shelf just because of the amount of sugar in it!

  40. How can it say organic wheat flour and be refined white flour? How can that be legal? We are just trying to get into better eating and it’s so overwhelming. Who can you trust??

    1. I think because white flour is still made from wheat so therefore still wheat flour which is why you need to look for whole-wheat not just wheat.

    2. They can say it because it is true. White flour is still wheat. Just not whole wheat. Common sense goes a long way when it comes to eating “real”/whole foods.

    3. Organic means it was grown without chemicals, pesticides, is non gmo, ect. They can still refine these into white flour or sugar and many other things. The refining process takes away nutrients it doesn’t make it non-organic just a lot less healthy. If you are going to eat junk food from a box though I would suggest buying organic, but it would be even better to make your own. you can check out my blog at hungry-hippy.com

      1. and non-gmo doesn’t that there are no pesticides and no carcinogens, so you have to be careful with both non-gmo and organic.

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