There seems to be a gluten-free version of everything, from cereal to pizza, flour and beyond. But, are these products healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts? No, according to a new study, which claims these products may even be misleading consumers.
In the study, researchers assessed hundreds of gluten-free foods and compared their nutritional content to their gluten-containing counterparts. They found that many of the products with gluten—especially breads, pastas, pizzas, and flours—were more nutrient dense and had three times the amount of protein than their gluten-free substitutes.
Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains like wheat and rye. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their body reacts by inflaming and causing serious damage to the small intestine’s lining. To prevent this, people with the autoimmune disorder are told to follow a gluten-free diet.
“As more and more people are following a gluten-free diet to effectively manage celiac disease, it is imperative that foods marketed as substitutes are reformulated to ensure that they truly do have similar nutritional values,” said lead researcher Joaquim Calvo Lerma, in a statement. “This is especially important for children, as a well-balanced diet is essential to healthy growth and development.”
Lerma and his team assessed a total of 654 gluten-free products and 655 gluten-containing products, which were all purchased in Spain. They found that breads without gluten had a significantly higher amount of lipids and saturated fatty acids. Another key finding showed that gluten-free pasta had a significantly lower content of sugar and protein.
The authors also warned that people purchasing these products may be unaware they're less healthy due insufficient nutritional labeling.
"Where nutritional values of gluten-free products do vary significantly from their gluten-containing counterparts. . . labelling needs to clearly indicate this so that patients, parents and carers can make informed decisions," said study author Sandra Martínez-Barona. “Consumers should also be provided with guidance to enhance their understanding of the nutritional compositions of products, in both gluten-free and gluten-containing products, to allow them to make more informed purchases and ensure a healthier diet is followed."
These findings emphasize what many nutritionists and other experts have advised: it’s not necessary to go gluten-free, unless you have a celiac disease or another medical reason. And, as this study illustrates, it may even be unhealthy.
This research hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it was presented in May 2017 at the 50th Annual Congress of the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition.
It’s estimated that celiac disease affects at least 3 million people in the United States, but a majority of people living with the disease are undiagnosed, according to the University of Chicago Medicine Celiac Disease Center.