Wheat Grass: Super Food or Super Lie?
By Caroline Doernhoefer, Delight Editorial Assistant
While perusing the aisles of your favorite specialty grocery shop, it’s not likely that you’d find the same product with the word “wheat” in its title also displaying a prominent “gluten-free!” label on the front, right? Well, think again. Stores across the country have picked up on the latest health and nutrition fad by stocking their stores with wheat grass supplements, juices, and even cubes. Widely known as “cereal grass,” wheat grass is a mix of grains in their sprouting stage that are highly sought after for their high concentrations of vitamins and minerals.
Advocates of wheat grass herald the products as “miracle workers,” often assigning superlative descriptions to their product names—for example: Super Greens, Amazing Grass, and even Perfect Food. Proponents of wheat grass assign a wide range of health claims to the cereal grasses, anywhere from “a general increase in health, energy, and wellbeing” to “a magical panacea” or “detoxifier.”
Super Greens, the makers of a range of wheat-grass-based products whose prices range from $28 for a 30-serving canister of dried, powered wheat grass to $25 for 30 servings of the Amazing Trio (wheat grass, barley, and alfalfa), claims wheat grass works with our bodies to neutralize the pH balance in the body, which can become too acidic through the consumption of coffee, processed foods, and alcohol. A more balanced pH, so it goes, results in higher energy, greater stamina, more efficient cellular activity, and a curbed appetite for sugar. However, the sum benefits of wheat grass, above and beyond a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, have not been scientifically validated nor recognized by the FDA.
Dieticians and celiacs alike are still scratching their heads as to why these products insist on pronouncing themselves to be gluten-free. Producers of wheat grass products justify the “gluten-free” label by emphasizing the distinction between wheat grass and wheat.
According to Super Foods, who makes Amazing Grass products, their “cereal grasses are harvested prior to jointing, before the grain forms and any gluten is present.” They liken wheat grass to a vegetable instead of a grain because the plant has yet to produce a seed, which would then allow the plant to be considered a grain. A statement released by The American Association of Cereal Chemists validates this argument. Findings from USDA research notes, “Gluten is found only in the seed kernel (endosperm) and not in the stem and grass leaves.”
For the gluten intolerant, there is still ample room for doubt.
Cheryl Harris, a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Dietitian, and Certified Wellness Coach, agrees that “The stem, grass and leaves of wheat products,” which the producers of wheat grass presumably use, “do not contain gluten.” Harris continues, “The question, however, becomes whether there is a way to 100% guarantee that no part of the seed is accidentally included in these products.” Harris’s concern for cross-contamination proves to be the crux of the argument. Are the great yet unconfirmed health benefits worth the risk?
When asked about the danger to people with celiac disease and those with gluten intolerance, some makers of these products outright say their wheat grass products are gluten-free. Many will go as far as to recommend them, one stating, “In fact, many customers have found consuming wheat grass actually helps with allergies since the body needs all the nutrients it can get to combat allergens.”
In all fairness, they do immediately go on to state, “It's always recommended that you check with your doctor/allergist or nutritionist before adding anything new to your diet.” Harris, of Harris Whole Health located in Alexandria, Virginia, tells Delight, “Personally, I don't include wheat grass in my diet, nor do I recommend it to my clients. I feel the potential risk far outweighs any potential benefit.” Harris’s concern stems from the fact that “there are currently no limits placed on the amount of cross-contamination or accidental contamination that products can contain.”
Of course, there is an exception, “if the company has gotten gluten-free certification through the Celiac Sprue Association or the Gluten Intolerance Group, where products are tested to contain less than 5ppm or 10 ppm of gluten, respectively,” Harris notes.
For many celiacs and others who do not tolerate gluten well, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing reason to explore the costly option of wheat grass. The Gluten Intolerance Group does not recommend these products to those on a gluten-free diet, citing the risk to be much greater than the benefits. The nutritional status of wheat grass is similar to that of vegetables, when compared side by side. For someone who is gluten sensitive but wants to see if sprouts may be beneficial in his or her diet, it may be sensible, under doctor’s supervision, to sprout a gluten-free grain instead. Harris suggests that “Almost all gluten-free grains can be sprouted, too. There's nothing magical about wheat, and if someone wants to include sprouted grains in his or her diet, eating sprouted non-gluten-containing grains is a much lower risk option.”
Are products that advertise their wheat, barley, and rye grasses to be gluten-free making false claims? Because there is no uniform labeling regulation in place, it can’t be definitively said that this is occurring. However, these products are certainly confusing many shoppers, making grocery shopping all the more difficult for those who must scrutinize labels and ingredient lists.