- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2018

Gluten-free is the health food rage of the moment, but research shows that most gluten-free snacks for children are generally unhealthful and packed with sugar.

In the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Calgary, Alberta, looked at 374 products marketed to children, evaluated their nutritional content and compared the results with those of gluten-filled counterparts. About 88 percent of the gluten-free products were considered to have “poor nutritional quality” compared with 97 percent of processed foods without a gluten-free claim.

The researchers also compared 43 gluten-free food products and their counterparts — such as oatmeal and macaroni and cheese — and found no nutritional superiority: They were of equally poor nutritional quality.

“For the parents who have children who aren’t gluten intolerant and are buying them because they think it will be healthier, that’s not the case,” said Charlene Elliott, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “And it shows the challenge for parents who have children with gluten intolerance of getting adequate nutritional intake from the packaged foods that are available.”

Published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, the study says that while most of the gluten-free products were low in sodium, total fat and saturated fat, they had less protein and more calories from added sugar.

Gluten is a starchy protein found in wheat, barley and rye that acts as a bonding agent and gives bread, pastries and pasta their shape and texture.

For people who can’t digest gluten, eating such products can trigger an autoimmune response that upsets the digestive system and prevents key nutrients from being absorbed — otherwise known as celiac disease.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, about 3 million Americans have the disorder, though about 83 percent of cases are undiagnosed. Federal statistics estimate that 1 in 141 Americans have the disease, also with low rates of awareness.

Before the packaged food industry started developing gluten-free products, people with celiac disease had to avoid those food staples.

“We think gluten-free diets became popular when you didn’t have all these options,” said Marilyn G. Geller, CEO of the Celiac Disease Foundation. “People weren’t eating muffins, cookies and pasta.”

But the industry caught on, and now there are gluten-free substitutes for nearly every product on grocery shelves. To make the products more appealing and similar to gluten-filled products, companies had to add more sugar and fat, Ms. Geller said.

But this message isn’t being transmitted to the public, who more often believe that a gluten-free label is a healthful nutritional choice.

A survey by The Hartman Group, which analyzes trends in the food and beverage industry, found that among people who purchased gluten-free products in 2017, only 6 percent had gluten intolerance. Thirty-five percent opted for gluten-free because they “wanted to try something new,” and 30 percent said gluten-free foods were more healthful.

Ms. Elliott, the Canada research chair in food marketing, policy and children’s health at the University of Calgary, said the food industry has recognized the potential for exploiting this market.

The gluten-free food industry is set to profit by $4.89 billion worldwide by 2021, according to a 2016 analysis by Transparency Market Research.

“It’s been lauded as the fastest-growing food intolerance category,” Ms. Elliott said. “But it also has tapped into other consumer perceptions around the ‘free from’ trend — so ‘free from artificial colors,’ ‘free from artificial flavors’ and then ‘free from gluten.’”

She said such marketing places a “health halo” on products that offer no nutritional advantage, such as gluten-free fruit snacks or purees that have virtually no protein but plenty of sugar.

“If you are a parent of a child with celiac, you would know that apples don’t have gluten in them. … So I think that that is designed for consumers who are looking for the health — have a bit of a health halo around the ‘gluten-free,’” she said.

Another aspect is price, the researcher said. Gluten-free products typically were found to be more expensive than their counterparts, although the study didn’t track this specifically.

“They are significantly more expensive than conventional fare …,” Ms. Elliott said. “So you are paying a premium for gluten-free products.”

Yet for celiac sufferers, the increase in packaged and processed products allows a bit more normalcy in a life dictated by what can’t be consumed.

Ms. Geller of the Celiac Foundation said her advice to parents is “everything in moderation.”

“We would never be the foundation to say, ‘No, your child shouldn’t have cake, shouldn’t have boxed cereals, shouldn’t have crackers,’ ” she said. “We teach parents how to eat safely with navigating the foods that the rest of us eat. We want them to figure out how to live a full life and how to manage that life.”

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