Gluten-free foods marketed to children reveal an ugly truth about the trend, but there's an easy fix

Flickr/ Cavale DoomGluten-free kids meals aren’t healthier than others, instead they’re dosed with less protein and fat, which are better ways to stay full than riding a sugar high.
  • A study of more than 370 “regular” and gluten-free products marketed to kids reveals that gluten-free packaged foods are no healthier, and in some key ways, they’re worse than other processed foods.
  • Gluten-free kids options have got less protein and less fat inside, which are two key ways to fuel up a growing body.
  • Just like so many other processed foods, gluten-free options are loaded with sugar.

If you’re swapping out regular mac and cheese for the rice-based gluten-free variety, choosing gluten-free labelled ice cream over regular, or pulling a gluten-free oatmeal packet off the shelf because you think it’s a healthier breakfast choice, you may want to change your ways – especially if you’re feeding kids.

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics comparing the amount of sugar, fat, salt, and other key ingredients in packaged foods marked “gluten-free” – or “GF” – to their gluten-laden counterparts, as well as products that made no claim, and revealed that the GF-packaged foods aren’t nutritionally better. In some ways, they’re actually worse.

For the study, the authors headed to two big Canadian supermarket chains to survey 374 processed kids meals. They checked out gluten-free options as well as “regular” picks, comparing foods like prepackaged breakfasts and dinners side-by-side. (The study authors excluded junk foods, like candy, chocolate, and chips.)

Remarkably, they found that gluten-free packaged foods had all the regular pitfalls of boxed and bagged foods, and no added benefits. Gluten-free products had less protein and fat, but nearly just as much sugar, if not more.

Food scientist Joaquim Calvo Lerma, who led another recent study of gluten-free foods and came up with similar results, said it’s clear the GF industry needs to course correct:

“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,” Lerma said in a release.

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

Roughly 1 in 100 kids is born with celiac disease, a genetic disorder that can cause damage to the intestines if the babes ingest gluten.

But the issue with nutrient-poor, gluten-free foods affects a much broader segment of the population, because many people who don’t have celiac think they’re doing their health a favour by choosing gluten-free products at the store.

A recent survey of consumers in Washington state found that roughly one in three shoppers choose gluten-free products because they believe they are a healthier alternative. Another 23% do it to lose weight, while just 17% of people buying gluten-free options are actually gluten-sensitive, allergic to wheat, or have celiac. The Pediatrics study authors say that many of these people are being duped by the gluten-free label, which has become a clever marketing tool for food companies, but not a marker of nutritional content.

“Going on a gluten-free diet, if you have celiac disease, saves your life,” Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University previously told Business Insider.

But he says the same doesn’t hold true for everyone else. “There’s very little scientific evidence to support the benefit of a gluten-free diet in anything except celiac disease.”

Green says it’s common for people who go gluten-free to miss out on key doses of iron and folic acid. This isn’t typically a problem for the rest of the population, because so many grains are fortified with those ingredients.

“Most gluten-free products are made from rice, corn or potato starch and therefore are even less nutritious than processed products containing wheat,” Marion Groetch, a nutrition and food allergy expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Reuters in an email when the new study came out. She said those products are often low in key nutrients like fibre, but even higher in sugar.

Going gluten-free doesn’t have to mean your health suffers.

“There are many very nutrient dense, whole, gluten-free grains such as amaranth, millet, quinoa, buckwheat,” Groetch said.

So whether you’re going gluten-free or not, it’s best to largely forgo packaged goods, and serve up more whole, unprocessed foods to kids, and to yourself.

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