Gluten-free foods may not be healthful, study warns

As more and more people are adopting a gluten-free diet, a new study investigates the nutritional content of gluten-free products and finds them lacking.

New research - presented at the 50th Annual Congress of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition - compares the nutritional content of gluten-free and gluten-containing foods.

Gluten is a protein found in a wide variety of wheat grains, rye, and barley, as well as in foods derived from these grains, such as pasta, bread, cereals, and baked goods.

People with celiac disease must follow a strict gluten-free diet, as this autoimmune disorder can be triggered by even the smallest intake of gluten. It is currently estimated that 1 in 100 people across the globe live with celiac disease. In Europe, approximately 1 percent of the population are thought to have the disorder, and in the United States, celiac disease affects more than three million people.

In addition to those affected by celiac disease, there are many people who avoid gluten because they are intolerant to the protein. Gluten sensitivity has similar symptoms to celiac disease, but gluten intolerance does not damage the small intestine.

Finally, more and more people are adhering to a gluten-free diet simply because gluten-free products are perceived to be more healthful. However, new research challenges this belief.

The new study was led by Dr. Joaquim Calvo Lerma and Dr. Sandra Martínez-Barona, both of the Research Group on Celiac Disease and Digestive Immunopathology at the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria La Fe in Valencia, Spain.

Gluten-free products lacking nutritional value, consumers may be misled

The researchers evaluated the nutritional content of 654 gluten-free foods and compared them with 655 products that contained gluten.

The study found that gluten-free products had a higher energy content than gluten-containing items. Additionally, foods with gluten contained up to three times more protein than their gluten-free counterparts.

Bread, pasta, pizza, and flour all had a particularly high protein content. For children, passing up on this nutritional content may have a negative impact on their development, and the shortcomings of gluten-free products found in the study raise the risk of childhood obesity.

"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. This is especially important for children, as a well-balanced diet is essential to healthy growth and development."

Dr. Joaquim Calvo Lerma

It is currently estimated that 10 percent of children whose growth is delayed for no apparent reason may have celiac disease.

The study also found that gluten-free breads contained considerably more lipids and saturated fats. Furthermore, gluten-free pasta was found to have less sugar than pasta with gluten, and gluten-free biscuits had considerably less protein and more lipids than their gluten-containing equivalent.

In light of these findings, Dr. Martínez-Barona suggests that consumers might be misinformed on the nutritional value of gluten-free products and calls for clearer labeling on these items:

"Where nutritional values of gluten-free products do vary significantly from their gluten-containing counterparts, such as having higher levels of saturated fat, labeling needs to clearly indicate this so that patients, parents, and carers can make informed decisions. 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."

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