Gluten-free (GF) foods marketed to children often are unhealthy, largely due to their sugar content, according to a new study.
“It is important to unsettle the assumption that GF food equals healthy, which has functioned as an excellent sales tool for the food industry, but does little to support public health,” Charlene Elliott, Ph.D., wrote in “The Nutritional Quality of Gluten-Free Products for Children” (Elliott C. Pediatrics. July 23, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-0525).
Children with celiac disease need to avoid gluten, which triggers an immune response. However, an increasing number of consumers without celiac also are purchasing gluten-free products believing they are healthier or may help them lose weight.
Those beliefs were put to the test by Dr. Elliott, a researcher from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, who studied packaged food from two major supermarket chains in her city.
She looked at 374 such food products marketed to children excluding “junk food” like candy and potato chips, and used the Pan American Health Organization Nutrient Profile Model to assess their nutritional quality per 100 gram serving. About 18% of the products had a claim of being gluten-free.
Data showed 88% of the gluten-free products were classified as unhealthy compared to 97% of regular products. The gluten-free products were lower in sodium, total fat and saturated fat. However, they also had less protein and more calories from sugar. About 79% had high sugar levels.
In a second analysis, Dr. Elliott compared 43 products with a gluten-free claim directly to their counterparts without a gluten-free claim using foods like cereal, fruit snacks and pasta. About 88% of the gluten-free foods were deemed as having poor nutritional quality compared to 93% of their counterparts. The gluten-free foods had more free sugars but were lower in sodium. Calories, fat and protein content were similar.
“The health halo often attributed to GF is not warranted, and parents who substitute GF products in place of their product equivalents (assuming GF products to be healthier) are mistaken,” Dr. Elliott wrote. “Parents of children with gluten intolerance and/or sensitivity, along with parents purchasing GF for other health reasons, need to carefully assess product labels when making purchases.”