Numerous personalities – including tennis champion Novak Djokovic, Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow – punt the gluten-free lifestyle to prevent weight gain, and link it to the growing ‘clean label’ and ‘free from’ trends.
However, research from safefood reveals gluten-free snack foods are not as healthy as most people believe.
Perceived health halo of gluten-free
A snapshot analysis of the nutritional content of 67 gluten-free snacks – including savoury snacks, nut products, cereal and baked products, and confectionery – sold in Irish supermarkets found that 75% were high in fat and 69% were high in sugar.
A survey of 2,000 Irish consumers – conducted in 2019 by Ipsos MRBI – also found that 92% of consumers who buy gluten-free foods do not have a gluten-related disorder or have been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease.
There is a misperception among the Irish of the health benefits of gluten-free products with more than one in five believing gluten-free products are lower in fat, 21% thinking they are lower in sugar, and 19% considered a gluten-free diet was a healthy way to lose weight.
There certainly is wide open scope to capitalise on the gluten-free snack market in Ireland.
According to Bord Bia, the gluten-free food market in Ireland was worth €66m in 2017 – an increase of 33% on the previous year – and predicted to continue its trajectory growth. The Irish Food Board also notes that Mintel research found that 70% of consumers in Ireland now snack daily, with three in four doing so because they are ‘trying to be good’ and picking healthier options for their snacks.
The perception is not relegated to Ireland alone; the most recent Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Report surveyed 30,000 adults worldwide and found that 21 % of respondents think gluten-free products are low in fat, sugar and salt, and therefore healthy.
Further Mintel research in the UK showed that over half (54 %) of consumers would stop buying certain ‘free-from’ foods if they thought those products were less healthy than their counterpart products, which are higher in fat, sugar or salt.
‘No added benefit to your health’
“Similar to recent trends we’ve seen with high-protein foods, gluten-free food is big business with an audience of people willing to purchase these products,” said Dr Catherine Conlon, director of Human Health & Nutrition, safefood.
UK 2010 research found that, compared to the general population, those on a gluten-free diet have a higher proportion of carbohydrates obtained from added sugars, and less from fibre.
This is an important consideration, as fibre intakes for most consumers is already on average 33% below the recommendation of 30g per day – around 23.2g by men and 17.4g by women.
It also found that women adhering to a GFD had lower intakes of iron, folate, zinc, manganese, magnesium and selenium, while the latter two were particularly low in men.
An American study found that 88% of the packaged gluten-free foods aimed at children could be classified as ‘unhealthy’ due to high levels of sugar, salt and/or fat.
“In the case of gluten-free snacks, you could end up purchasing snack foods with lots of added fat and sugar, which are of no added benefit to your health.”
“We know from our survey that 92% of people buying these products do not have a gluten-related disorder or have not been diagnosed with coeliac disease and therefore have no medical reason to avoid gluten in their diet.
“There is no consistent evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve your health if you aren’t sensitive to gluten. Many of the gluten-free snacks we surveyed are high in fat and sugar like other treat foods.”
While it is absolutely necessary for a person suffering from coeliac disease or gluten intolerance to follow a strict gluten-free diet, the advocacy group advises them to limit their gluten-free snacking to small portions once or twice a week.
And for those ‘lifestylers’ who don’t have a gluten intolerance?
Well, its notes that gluten-free products tend to come with a higher price tag, so there would be no additional benefits to the pocket, let alone health.
The research also reveals a huge white space for producers of truly healthy gluten-free snacks.
- Almost one in five consumers consider a gluten-free diet to be a healthy way to lose weight.
- One in five people buy gluten-free products even though the majority of them have not been diagnosed with a coeliac disease and don’t have gluten intolerance.
- Three quarters of gluten-free snacks were high in fat.
- Seven out of 10 of the snacks were high in sugar.
- Most of the gluten-free snacks have the same calories as a regular chocolate bar,
The report – entitled ‘Cutting out Gluten: the nutrient profile of gluten-free snack foods on the island of Ireland’ – is available to download here.
Authors: D. Wild, G.G. Robins, V.J. Burley and P.D. Howdle
Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2010; 32: 573–581
Author: C. Elliott
Pediatrics. 2018 Aug;142(2). pii: e20180525