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Gluten-free snacks are 'not as healthy as many people think and most who buy them are not coeliac'

More than one in five people buy gluten-free foods, 92% of whom do not have a gluten-related disorder, according to new research.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Aleksey Boyko

GLUTEN-FREE SNACKS are not as healthy as many people think, according to new research.

More than one in five people buy gluten-free foods, 92% of whom do not have a gluten-related disorder or have not been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease, a new survey carried out by Safefood has found.

Among the 2,000 people surveyed, there was a misperception of the health benefits of gluten-free products – more than one-fifth of people (23%) thought that gluten-free products were lower in fat, 21% thought they were lower in sugar and 19% considered a gluten-free diet was a healthy way to lose weight.

Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Coeliac disease is a common digestive condition where a person is intolerant to gluten.

The research also examines the nutritional content of 67 gluten-free snack foods included nut products and savoury snacks, cereal and baked products, and confectionery.

Of all the gluten-free snack products surveyed, 75% were high in fat and 69% were high in sugar, with calorie levels similar to a standard chocolate bar.

‘Big business’

Speaking about the research, Dr Catherine Conlon, Director of Human Health & Nutrition at Safefood, said it’s an “absolute must” for people who have a coeliac disease or a gluten-related disorder to avoid gluten.

“However, we would have a concern that some of these snack foods have an unhealthy nutritional profile for everyone, whether or not they have a gluten-related disorder. Snacking on foods such as fruit and vegetables, unsalted plain nuts and gluten-free rice cakes and cheese, are healthier options for us all,” Conlon said.

She noted that over nine in 10 people surveyed who bought gluten-free snacks did not have a gluten-related disorder or were diagnosed with coeliac disease and therefore had “no medical reason to avoid gluten in their diet”.

“There is no consistent evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve your health if you aren’t sensitive to gluten. Many of the gluten-free snacks we surveyed are high in fat and sugar like other treat foods,” Coolon said.

The gluten-free food market in Ireland was worth €66 million in 2017, an increase of 33% on the previous year, according to Bord Bia estimates.

Conlon said, similar to recent trends we’ve seen with high-protein foods, gluten-free food is “big business with an audience of people willing to purchase these products”.

“In the case of gluten-free snacks, you could end up purchasing snack foods with lots of added fat and sugar”, which are of no added benefit to your health, she added.

The survey of 2,000 consumers on the island of Ireland was conducted by Ipsos MRBI in 2019. In the Republic of Ireland it was done over the phone and in Northern Ireland it was carried out through face-to-face interviews.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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