Gluten-free products cannot be considered as sufficient substitutes for their gluten-containing counterparts, prompting scientists to call for the reformulation of gluten free foods with healthier raw materials to ensure healthy childhood nutrition.
The outcomes of the study, presented today at the 50th Annual Congress of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition, show that gluten-free items have a significantly higher energy content and a different nutritional composition to their gluten-containing counterparts. Many of the gluten-containing products - especially breads, pastas, pizzas and flours - also contained up to three times more protein than their gluten free substitutes.
The imbalances highlighted in the study could impact children's growth and increase the risk of childhood obesity.
The study assessed over 1,300 products, finding:
- Gluten-free breads had significantly higher content of lipids and saturated fatty acids
- Gluten-free pasta had significantly lower content of sugar and protein
- Gluten-free biscuits had significantly lower content of protein and significantly higher content of lipids
ESPGHAN expert and lead researcher, Dr Joaquim Calvo Lerma, explains "As more and more people are following a gluten-free diet to effectively manage coeliac disease, it is imperative that foods marketed as substitutes are reformulated to ensure that they truly do have similar nutritional values. This is especially important for children, as a well-balanced diet is essential to healthy growth and development."
Experts are also warning that consumers may not be aware of these unhealthy variances due to poor nutritional labelling.
Dr Martinez-Barona, fellow lead researcher comments "Where nutritional values of gluten-free products do vary significantly from their gluten-containing counterparts, labelling needs to clearly indicate this. Consumers should also be provided with guidance to enhance their understanding of the nutritional compositions of products to allow them to make more informed purchases and ensure a healthier diet is followed."
Daciana Sarbu MEP, Vice-Chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, adds "Gluten-free products that are not pre-packed are not subject to the same labelling requirements as pre-packed products. In this case, consumers could be less aware of important nutritional differences with potentially significant health impacts. I have always supported so-called 'traffic light' labelling to facilitate easy comparison between products for key nutrients including protein, fat and sugars."