Gluten-free packaged foods aimed at children are just as likely to be of poor nutritional quality — including high in sugar — as other child-targeted food products, according to a study published this week in the journal Pediatrics.
“It is important to unsettle the assumption that [gluten-free] food equals healthy, which has functioned as an excellent sales tool for the food industry, but does little to support public health,” writes Charlene Elliott, the study’s author and a researcher of food marketing and children’s health at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
About 1 percent of children must avoid foods with gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt and other grains, because they have celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder that can damage the intestines and block the absorption of nutrients.
But a growing number of parents are putting their children without the condition on a gluten-free diet because they believe such foods are healthier.
Sales of gluten-free food products have soared in recent years. In the United States — the world’s largest gluten-free market — sales are expected to exceed $2 billion dollars in 2020, up from $400 million in 2015.
Because of the increasing popularity of gluten-free packaged foods, Elliott decided to compare the nutritional quality of those products with their “regular” equivalents. She purchased 370 packaged foods at two large supermarket chain stores. Although all were marketed at children, none were “junk foods,” such as candies, potato chips, cheese-flavored snacks or sugary sodas.
About 18 percent of the items were labeled gluten-free.
Because the products had different portion sizes, Elliott analyzed their nutritional values per 100-gram serving, looking specifically at average amounts of calories, sodium, free sugars, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and protein.
She found that 88 percent of the gluten-free products were unhealthy compared to 97 percent of the regular products. The gluten-free products tended to be lower in sodium, total fat and saturated fat, but they also contained less protein and more calories from sugar.
In fact, 79 percent of the gluten-free products had high sugar levels. That compared to 81 percent of the regular items.
“Overall, the nutritional quality of both [gluten-free-labeled] products and their matched products was poor,” Elliott concludes.
Elliott then conducted a second analysis in which she did a direct nutritional comparison of 43 gluten-free packaged products with similar products that made no gluten-related claim — gluten-free vs. regu macaroni and cheese, for example.
About 88 percent of the gluten-free products were of poor nutritional quality. That compared to 93 percent of their counterparts. The gluten-free products were lower in sodium, but they had more free sugars. Calories, fat and protein content in both groups of products tended to be similar.
Limitations and implications
This study comes with caveats. Most notably, while Elliott analyzed a significant number of products, they do not represent all gluten-free products aimed at children, particularly since they came from only two supermarket chains.
Still, Elliott’s findings support a string of previous studies that found gluten-free products (those aimed at adults) were no healthier than similar gluten-containing ones.
“This research reveals that products with a [gluten-free] claim are not nutritionally superior,” writes Elliott about her study. “This has implications for parents who seek healthy products for their children, especially in the case of children with [celiac disease] (for whom gluten must be avoided), but also in the case of parents who mistakenly believe that [gluten-free] products will confer health benefits.”
Parents need to be reminded, she says, to read nutrition labels on packaged goods and to serve whole, unprocessed foods to their families. And policymakers need to make it easier for consumers to evaluate the nutritional quality of packaged food products.
“This is particularly important in light of the finding that foods targeted at children in general (both [gluten-free] and regular products) are of poor nutritional quality,” Elliott concludes.
FMI: You can read Elliott’s study in full on the Pediatrics website.