Walk into any grocery store across the United States and you’ll find thousands of different products lining the shelves.
Yet among the many cans, bags, and boxes of food, an interesting and relatively new commonality exists.
Today, many of these products have the words “gluten free” emblazoned across their labels.
If it seems at every turn there’s a friend, family member, or co-worker going gluten free, your suspicions are correct.
Almost 30 percent of adults in the United States — roughly 70 million people — say they are trying to cut back on gluten, according to the NDP Group, a consumer survey firm.
In 2016, sales of gluten-free foods reached $1.3 billion, up 86 percent from 2013. By 2020 sales are expected to reach $7.6 billion.
Diet based on necessity or trends?
The food trend is so widespread the term “gluten free” is now synonymous with healthy, according to nutrition experts that Healthline contacted.
Andrea Garber, PhD, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and the chief nutritionist at the school’s Eating Disorders Program and Childhood Obesity (WATCH) Program.
She said the choice of eating only gluten-free products can be based on perceived health benefits and not out of medical necessity.
This could put the habit into what many in her field call the “halo effect.”
“The glow of making one healthy food choice,” she said.
Think of it as ordering a Diet Coke with your fries. We believe them to cancel each other out, Garber noted, but the reality is they don’t.
A new study reveals the same for choosing gluten-free processed foods over their regular counterparts.
The report was presented at the 50th Annual Congress of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition earlier this month.
The study compared almost 700 gluten-free products and gluten-containing products. The researchers found that gluten-free bread has a higher amount of lipids and saturated fats while gluten-free pasta has a lower content of protein and sugar.
The authors said an overreliance on stocking your kitchen with gluten-free products could pose serious health risks, especially for children. They cited obesity as the number one concern.
“Where nutritional values of gluten-free products do vary significantly from their gluten-containing counterparts, such as having higher levels of saturated fat, labeling needs to clearly indicate this so that patients, parents, and [caregivers] can make informed decisions,” Dr. Sandra Martínez-Barona, fellow lead researcher from the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria La Fe in Spain, said in a press release.
Garber said the study is a good example of how confusing healthy eating has become.
“Many people need gluten-free foods because of disease,” she said. “But if you don’t [and you eat gluten free], you may be undermining your own health attempts.”
Lots of gluten-free options now
People who have celiac disease do have legitimate reasons to check food labels.
The autoimmune disease means your body can’t digest the protein found in wheat products. Eating these foods can cause serious damage to your small intestines.
For decades, eating gluten free was a challenging diet to sustain.
It required discipline and planning around meals. But in the past few years, processed foods that normally contained gluten have been reformulated to remove the wheat protein.
Consumers are privy to an abundance of gluten-free breads, cookies, pastas, and cereals currently on the market.
Most of these products were historically made with wheat, so a gluten-free option is welcoming for those who can’t digest the protein.
But the term is also popping up on everything from oil-based salad dressing to candy bars. It’s even slapped on certain soft drinks.
“The number of people who have gluten sensitivity had increased dramatically,” Garber said. “So it’s a perfect storm that has created really good marketing.”
Are gluten-free foods healthier?
But as the food trend continues to hold, people need to be aware that going gluten free is not the golden ticket to healthy eating, Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, the wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Healthline.
“The public is not educated,” she said.
Processed foods that claim to be free of gluten include other ingredients added to compensate for lost flavor.
Healthline surveyed the ingredients list on packages of regular white sandwich bread and gluten-free sandwich bread.
The regular bread lists flour, water, and sugar as the first three ingredients. The gluten-free bread lists water, tapioca starch, and potato starch as the top three ingredients.
What’s more, the fat, sugar, and salt content in the gluten-free bread is slightly higher than the regular bread.
Kirkpatrick said for people who want to go gluten free, it’s far better to choose grains that aren’t made from wheat, rather than highly processed foods that are made from wheat but have the gluten removed.
What does that look like?
“Quinoa, buckwheat, nut flours. Things that haven’t been processed,” she said.
“Reduce your intake of processed foods,” she said. “Try to go back as much as you can to eating whole foods.”