Unveiling gluten-free misperceptions: ‘Don’t assume gluten-free products are healthy by default’ – FoodNavigator.com

The global market for gluten-free food products is growing at 9.1% per year. According to industry estimates, the market is predicted to reach 29.12bn by 2025.

It is understood that such impressive market growth is, in part, linked to the perception that gluten-free products are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. Advocacy of gluten-free diets by celebrities and health influencers may also be a contributing factor.

This begs the question: from a nutritional profile standpoint, are gluten-free products healthier? Fresh research from Irish non-government organisation (NGO) SafeFood suggests a number of misconceptions about gluten-free products exist, particularly related to health.

The island of Ireland (IOI) boasts a strong gluten-free market. In the UK, the gluten-free market was valued at 438m in 2016 up 36% from 2015. And in the Republic of Ireland (ROI), the market was estimated to be worth 66m in 2017 similarly up by 36% year-on-year.

SafeFoods research focused on products and consumers in both Northern Ireland and the ROI. The NGO surveyed nutritional information displayed on 67 gluten-free snack foods available for sale in four retailers: Dunnes Stores, Tesco, SuperValu, and Aldi.

Gluten-free snack foods included nut products, savoury snacks, cereal and baked products, and confectionery.

SafeFood also commissioned a survey of 2,018 consumers on the IOI between January and March 2019 to gather data on attitudes, behaviours, and perceptions of gluten-free diets.

Gluten is a mixture of proteins gliadins and glutelins that is found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, triticale, kamut, and spelt.

As SafeFood notes in its report, gluten is used for many different technological purposes in the processing of food, such as:

The product survey revealed that 75% of all gluten-free snack products analysed were high in fat, 69% were high in sugar, and their calorie levels were deemed similar to that of a standard chocolate bar.

Consumer survey results found that one in five people (23%) buy gluten-free foods. Yet, 92% of those people did not have a gluten-related disorder, nor had been diagnosed with coeliac disease.

A misperception of the health benefits of gluten-free products was also observed, with more than one in five respondents (23%) deeming gluten-free products to be lower in fat than gluten counterparts.

Twenty-one percent thought gluten-free products were lower in sugar, and 19% believed a gluten-free diet to be a healthy way to lose weight.

SafeFood stressed that for people with gluten-related ailments, avoiding gluten is non-negotiable.

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 SafeFood dietician Joana Da Silva.

Addressing all consumers, the NGO noted a number of recommendations, including not to assume that gluten-free products are healthy by default. SafeFood also urged consumers to read the front and back-of-pack nutrition information on product labels to identify options lower in fat and sugar.

The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), which similarly acknowledged the rise in the number of people avoiding gluten as part of a healthy lifestyle, stressed that a gluten-free diet is only vital for people with gluten-related disorders, such as coeliac disease.

However, for people without a medical reason to avoid glucose, there is no consistent evidence that eating a gluten-free diet will provide any health benefit, BNF assistant nutrition scientist Alex White told FoodNavigator.

Where unnecessary to do so, cutting out gluten can potentially have adverse effects, he continued. Gluten-containing foods like wholegrain products provide many nutrientssuch as fibre and some vitamins and minerals, which may not be equally abundant in gluten-free foods and products.

A diet rich in fibre contributes for example to the maintenance of a healthy gut microbiota. In addition, products that are gluten-free can still be high in saturated fat, sugars and salt.

Both SafeFood and BNF highlighted that above all, a healthy diet is key. Select snacks that are naturally lower in fat, sugar and salt, and are a better source of fibre, such as fruit and vegetables, rather than heavily processed snack foods, advised SafeFood.

BNFs White told this publication that regardless of the dietary pattern chosen, a healthy, varied and balanced diet should be followed, based on wholegrains and fruit and vegetables, some good quality protein such as oily fish, pulses, eggs and lean meat.

The assistant nutrition scientist also recommended limiting intake of sugar and salt, and replacing foods high in saturated fat with some foods rich in unsaturated fat.

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Unveiling gluten-free misperceptions: 'Don't assume gluten-free products are healthy by default' - FoodNavigator.com

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