Myth-busting the idea that gluten-free is healthier

New research finds that gluten-free foods contain more bad stuff than regular products. Do retailers need to reformulate?

19 January 2018
image credit: denisgo.iStock/Thinkstock

Gluten-free products aren’t actually a guilt-free indulgence, according to new research from the University of Hertfordshire.

The institution looked at more than 1,700 food products and found that – with the exception of crackers – gluten-free food incorporated more fat, salt and sugar than gluten-containing equivalents, while also being lower in fibre and protein.

Gluten-free foods were also 159% more expensive than regular products.

Proving to be a profitable area, the global retail market for gluten-free is expected to rise from $1.7bn in 2011 to $4.7bn in 2020, Euromonitor predicts.

It's been booming in recent years due to UK consumers' focus on healthier alternatives, but could this new research mean formulation needs revisiting?

Got the goods

According to Mintel, 12% of new food products launched in the UK in 2015 were gluten-free. Meanwhile, global sales of gluten-free foods jumped 12.6% in 2016 to $3.5bn, compared with overall packaged-foods growth of just over 4%, Euromonitor found.

And university researchers had no trouble finding gluten-free food either. They took samples from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison, Asda and Ocado, and randomly selected gluten-containing equivalents from the same stores.

Food items were broken down into 10 different categories: brown bread, white bread, white flour, wholegrain flour, breakfast cereals, wholegrain pasta, regular pasta, pizza bases, crackers and biscuits.

And the results? Gluten-free foods don’t offer any nutritional advantages over regular foods. Yet 8% of people in the UK report following a gluten-free diet as part of a healthy lifestyle. And more than half the UK population brought a free-from food last year, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

In particular, the research showed that the total fat content for gluten-free brown bread and white bread were more than double those of regular products. Gluten-free ranges were also found to have significantly lower protein content than traditional equivalents across nine of the 10 food categories.

It’s also a pretty costly lifestyle choice: the price of gluten-free brown and white bread and white and wholegrain flour was over four times the cost of normal foods.

Dr. Angela Madden from the University of Hertfordshire says it’s helpful that there are more gluten-free products available, particularly for people with coeliac disease, but the healthier image the food generates is a worry.

“I think it’s a bit of concern that people are starting a gluten-free diet thinking it’s just going to do them good generally, when actually they may not get any benefit from it if they don’t have a medical condition and it may not be healthy,” she says.

Last year, scientists at Harvard University also found that those who cut gluten out of their diet increase the risk of developing diabetes.

Stretching taste

But why are gluten-free products actually bad for you? Dr. Madden says one of the reasons is that wheat, rye or other forms of starch provide important ‘stretch’ in food.

“If you take the stretching out, the taste completely changes, so replacements have to make it taste good,” she says. “So the reason is partly what manufacturers are substituting for wheat and partly what they are adding as they need to make it taste a little better, as replacements don’t have the same quality that wheat has.”

She hopes manufacturers see the study’s findings as an opportunity to reformulate.

“Manufacturers realise it’s a really hard balance between taste and nutritional composition – it’s something quite complicated and time consuming – but most manufacturers want to make products that consumers want,” she says.

It’s that age old battle of taste versus nutrition, but it appears that gluten-free products may need a healthy helping hand…

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