The rise of the gluten-free fad has grown year on year, and with over a third of adult Americans trying to cut the stuff out of their diets, the gluten-free food industry has boomed. But the question is, unless you’re one of the 1% of people who actually have celiac disease, meaning that you can’t eat gluten without getting seriously ill, are there really any benefits to eating gluten-free products?
Probably not. “The foods can be significantly more expensive and are very trendy to eat, but we discovered a negligible difference when looking at their overall nutrition,” explains Dr Jason Wu from The George Institute for Global Health, Australia, who led a recent study looking into the differences between standard products and their gluten-free counterparts.
After looking at over 3,200 products across ten food categories, the researchers were able to find little to no difference in nutritional value of gluten-free food. They looked at core foods, like bread and pasta, but also at those considered to be junk like cookies and chips.
“In the core foods we found significantly lower levels of protein in gluten-free foods, but the remaining content such as sugar and sodium was actually very similar,” said Wu. “The same was the case in the discretionary foods, with almost no difference in their nutritional make-up.”
In fact, some suggest that gluten-free food can even be worse for you, as in order to enhance the flavor and texture they often contain more sugar and fat. In addition, they frequently have fewer vitamins and minerals. So why is it that the number of those claiming to have a gluten intolerance continues to rise?
Living in the age of self-diagnosis and Doctor Google can be as much of a hindrance as help. While there might genuinely be a modest increase in those with celiac disease as awareness of the condition grows, this still doesn’t explain why up to 13% of people claim to be affected in some way. The symptoms that are often quoted for gluten intolerance – such as fatigue, bloating, and headaches – are often vague and could be attributed to one of many lifestyle choices.
It also doesn’t help that many big names are convinced of the gluten-free lifestyle, like famously fussy eater Gwyneth Paltrow, and gossip and so-called health mags alike are never far from someone repeating the claimed benefits of the diet. Another, often overlooked reason is simple advertising. The health food industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is continuing to grow.
“Fancy labels on gluten-free foods have the potential to be used as a marketing tactic, even on products that traditionally don’t have any gluten in them anyway,” concludes Wu. “Misinterpretation by consumers, especially of junk foods, that gluten-free means they are healthy is a real concern.”