Health benefits of gluten-free diet are misperceived, report finds

More than 90% of people buying gluten-free products have no medical reason for doing so

Among those polled,   one in five said gluten-free  foods were lower in sugar and a healthy way to lose weight.

Among those polled, one in five said gluten-free foods were lower in sugar and a healthy way to lose weight.

 

More than 90 per cent of people who buy gluten-free foods do not have a gluten-related disorder or coeliac disease and mistakenly believe such a diet has health benefits and will help them lose weight, according to a new report from Ireland’s food safety watchdog.

The report from Safefood found that while 23 per cent of those surveyed buy gluten-free foods, 92 per cent of those who do so had no medical reason for choosing gluten free.

Among those polled, there was a misperception of the health benefits of gluten-free products. Almost a quarter of those surveyed said gluten-free products were lower in fat and one in five said such foods were lower in sugar and a healthy way to lose weight.

The research also includes a snapshot survey which looks at the nutritional content of 67 gluten-free snack foods.

These snack foods included nut products and savoury snacks, cereal and baked products, and confectionery.

It found that of all the gluten-free snack products surveyed, 75 per cent were high in fat and 69 per cent were high in sugar, with calorie levels similar to a standard chocolate bar.

“For those people who have a diagnosis of coeliac disease or those with a gluten-related disorder, avoiding gluten in their daily diet is an absolute must,” said Dr Catherine Conlon, director of human health and nutrition with Safefood.

‘Clean labels’

“However, we would have a concern that some of these snack foods have an unhealthy nutritional profile for everyone, whether or not they have a gluten-related disorder. Snacking on foods such as fruit and vegetables, unsalted plain nuts and gluten-free rice cakes and cheese, are healthier options for us all.”

She said 92 per cent of the people buying such products “have no medical reason to avoid gluten in their diet” and stressed that there was “no consistent evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve your health if you aren’t sensitive to gluten”.

According to industry estimates, the gluten-free food market in Ireland was worth €66 million in 2017, an increase of 33 per cent on the previous year.

Many gluten-free food products are promoted by media personalities and sports stars as part of a trend for “clean labels”, including “free-from” food products.

“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,” added Dr Conlon. “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.”