July 23, 2018

New study shatters myth that gluten-free children's products in the supermarket are nutritionally superior

Parents need to carefully assess product labels when making purchases, says researcher Charlene Elliott

Charlene Elliott calls into question the "health halo" reputation of gluten-free products for kids.

Debby Herold, Faculty of Arts

Despite having a “health halo” reputation among consumers as being nutritionally superior to other supermarket food products, gluten-free supermarket foods that are targeted at children are not necessarily a healthier option, according to new study in the journal Pediatrics, authored by the University of Calgary’s Dr. Charlene Elliott, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health. In fact, gluten-free children’s products may be a of greater concern because of their sugar content.

“For many consumers, 'gluten free' is the new 'better-for-you'," says Elliott, a professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film. “Some parents opt for a gluten-free diet as they believe it will be healthier for their children. But when you look at the nutritional profile of packaged gluten-free foods, this is not the case.” 

Parents of children with gluten intolerance or sensitivity, along with those who purchase gluten-free products for other health reasons, need to carefully assess product labels when making purchases, says Elliott. As her study shows, approximately 80 per cent of child-targeted gluten-free products have high sugar levels. 

The Pediatrics study (published online July 23) examined the nutritional content of gluten-free products marketed specifically to children to see how they measured up to their traditional counterparts. The author purchased 374 child-targeted products from two of the largest supermarket chains in Calgary and compared the nutritional quality of the gluten-free labelled products with the products without such a claim. 

A secondary analysis compared the nutrient profile of child-targeted gluten-free products to their product “equivalents.” The findings revealed that products labelled gluten-free are not nutritionally superior to “regular” children’s foods (those without a gluten-free claim) or to their gluten-containing equivalents.

In fact, approximately 80 per cent of child-targeted gluten-free products have high sugar levels, while 88 per cent of the packaged gluten-free foods aimed at children can be classified as having poor nutritional quality due to high levels of sugar, sodium and/or fat. Many of the gluten-free foods for children also had lower protein levels, and a similar proportion of gluten-free foods had high sugar levels compared to their gluten-containing counterparts.

“Despite the fact that gluten-free products tend to have a ‘health halo’ among consumers, they are not nutritionally superior,” says Elliott. “This makes it challenging for parents of children with gluten intolerance, and it also has implications for parents who mistakenly believe that gluten-free will confer health benefits.” 

She adds: “It is important to unsettle the assumption that gluten-free food equals healthy food, which has functioned as an excellent sales tool for the food industry but does little to support public health.” 

Dr. Charlene Elliot, PhD, is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.