According to research from Netherlands consumer association, Consumentenbond, gluten-free foods are frequently higher in fat sugar and salt and lower in fibre than comparable mainstream products that contain gluten.
The Consumentenbond highlighted crispbread maker Wasa’s gluten-free crispbread contains six times as much fat as the company’s whole grain variety; Koopmans gluten-free pancake mix is twice as salty as its 6-Grain pancake mix; and Peijnenburg’s gluten free breakfast cake has 30 kilocals more per 100 grams than the regular breakfast cake.
At the same time, because flour is not used in gluten-free production, products tested were also found to be lower in dietary fibre than their gluten-containing counterparts.
Study’s findings supported
While the Consumentenbond’s study focused on a relatively small sample of gluten-free and conventional products, its findings are borne out in earlier research.
The Dutch Celiac Society, the NCV, conducted a study two years ago in conjunction with Wageningen University that also concluded gluten-free products have more salt sugar and fats and less fibre than comparable conventional products.
Bianca Rootsaert, president of the NCV, told FoodNavigator that this dual standard meant people diagnosed with celiac disease needed to make more dietary changes than simply cutting out gluten. “One could say that in if a gluten-free [consumer] eats exactly the same than before the diagnosis and replaces all the gluten containing products with lookalike gluten-free products then he or she will eat more fat sugar and salt and less fibre,” Rootsaert noted.
She said that there is room for the food sector to improve the gluten-free product offering currently available by developing healthier alternatives. “Regarding ingredients and nutritional value – especially concerning the content of sugar, simple carbohydrates and fat – there is a need of improvement, [especially]. for convenience foods like pizza or lasagna and cake or pastry. Therefore, we want a major supply of wholesome gluten-free products from the producers.”
Technical challenges slow progress
Responding to the report’s findings, UK-based food sector body the Gluten Free Industry Association flagged the technical barriers to developing foods that are free-from gluten as an issue impeding innovation.
A spokesperson for the Association told FoodNavigator: “There are numerous technical challenges in order to develop and produce gluten free products, appropriate for a coeliac, that meet consumer expectations including quality, taste, texture and nutrition.”
While gluten-free products may be higher in fat, salt and sugar, the spokesperson stressed that they contribute to a healthy diet for those with coeliac disease. “The gluten-free diet is the only treatment for coeliac disease, and within a balanced and healthy diet gluten free products play a role alongside naturally gluten free foods such as potato and rice.”
NCV’s Rootsaert concurred. “There is no clear cut evidence that gluten-free consumers per se are eating less healthy than non-gluten-free. This depends on what they eat besides the gluten-free products,” she concluded.
The Gluten Free Industry Association was also quick to stress that gluten-free manufacturers are focusing their innovation efforts on improving the nutritional profile of their products as well as expanding variety in the gluten-free category.
“As an industry, we are committed to continually improving the nutritional benefits of gluten-free products and significant advances continue to be made,” the spokesperson insisted.