Elliott, who is a professor at University of Calgary, published her findings in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics this month.
She warned parents of children with gluten intolerance or sensitivity need to assess product labels when making purchases carefully.
“The health halo often attributed to the gluten-free label is not warranted,” noted Elliott.
Elliott said manufacturers have been eying children as their target audiences for gluten-free snacks as consumer research shows an increased consciousness of allergens among parents.
However, the nutritional quality of gluten-free products marketed for children has not been fully examined.
Celiac disease among children
In her study “The Nutritional Quality of Gluten-Free Products for Children,” Elliott said celiac disease is an inherited immune reaction that is triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains. It is estimated to affect 1% of the world’s population.
“Given celiac disease’s genetic basis, children are equally affected. Approximately 1% of children [globally] have celiac disease, making it one of the most common chronic disorders in young people,” she added.
Study methods and conclusion
For her study, Elliott examined 374 “child-targeted” food products – 18% with a gluten-free claim, including Clif Kid and EnviroKidz apple cinnamon-flavored oatmeal – that she had from two major supermarket chains in Calgary, Alberta, between February and March last year.
She noted these stores were visited multiple times during the data collection phase to ensure that no products were missed.
By using the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) nutrient profile model, Elliott compared the nutritional content between products that contained a gluten-free label and those without one.
She said: “Products had different portion sizes, so all portions and nutritional values per serving were adjusted to represent a 100g serving.”
The results showed products with a gluten-free label had lower levels of protein, sodium, total fat and saturated fat compared with those without a label, and there was “no difference in sugar accounting for the percentage of calories.”
“In fact, 80% of child-targeted gluten-free products [fruit snacks in particular] have high sugar levels and 88% of them are classified as having poor nutritional quality [based on PAHO criteria],” said Elliott.
She also noted that, even though the average serving sizes for products with a gluten-free claim are significantly smaller than those for regular ones, these “do not compensate for products that are of poor nutritional quality.”
“Given children’s lower daily caloric intake and the challenges associated with consuming a nutrient-rich gluten-free diet for children with celiac disease in particular, it is important that the products designed for children are held to a higher nutritional standard,” said Elliott.