Behind the gluten free food fad

While the market for gluten free foods continues to expand, concerns are growing about the nutritional impact of these foods on the population, particularly among those who are not coeliac or gluten sensitive.

Researchers in the UK compared the reported nutritional composition of gluten free food to regular, gluten-containing products across 10 product categories. Over 1,700 foods were classified using front-of-pack labelling for content of fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt, and nutrient content and cost per 100 g was compared between gluten free and regular foods.

More gluten free bread and flour products contained high fat and sugar, whereas fewer gluten free crackers contained high fat and sugar compared to regular foods. High salt content was found more frequently in gluten free than regular products. On average, gluten free products were 159% more expensive than comparable regular products, and were also more likely to be lower in fibre and protein content than regular foods.

At the same time, researchers in Australia have advised people against changing to a gluten free diet without a formal diagnosis of clinical sensitivity to gluten or wheat. In a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia, they showed only 16 per cent of those reporting a sensitivity to gluten actually reproduced symptoms when challenged in a blind placebo study. That is, they ate gluten without being aware of it and didn’t suffer any adverse reactions.

The authors maintain unwarranted adherence to a gluten free diet may adversely affect cardiovascular risk factors such as total cholesterol levels, weight gain leading to obesity, glucose tolerance and blood pressure and may lead to development of the metabolic syndrome. They cited a recent study published in the British Medical Journal that found an association between a gluten free diet and an increased risk of heart disease among 110,000 men and women.

Reference 1: Fry et al. 2017 Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. DOI: 10.1111/jhn.12502.
Reference 2: Potter et al. 2017 Med J Australia. Vol. 207 (5) pp. 211-215. DOI: 10.5694/mja17.00332