A large study of gluten-free foods confirms what health experts have long been saying, but many consumers refuse to believe: Foods without the compound are no healthier for most people than gluten-containing counterparts.
The study's authors, led by Jason Wu, a research fellow at the University of Sydney's George Institute for Global Health, analyzed over 3,200 foods from Australian supermarkets to see if there was a difference between the nutritional content of foods labeled "gluten-free" and equivalent foods that contain gluten.
"There has been tremendous growth in the gluten-free food market in the past few years. These products are obviously essential to patients with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance," Wu told The Huffington Post. "However, there is clearly a growing perception among consumers around the world that gluten-free products are healthier for others as well. We wanted to figure out if that was true."
Wu and his colleagues focused on macronutrients in two different categories of food: "staple foods" such as bread, pasta and cereal and "discretionary foods" such as cookies, snack bars and ice creams.
They found no major differences between the nutritional values of gluten-free and gluten-containing versions of the discretionary foods. A cookie, in their analysis, was a cookie no matter what.
Gluten-free versions of the staple foods, however, often contained significantly less protein than conventional versions of those same foods -- not a shock, given that gluten is a protein. Gluten-free pasta, for example, contained an average of 52 percent less protein than pasta made from wheat.
Wu said that he wasn't too worried about the lower protein values. "Most people in western societies are not exactly protein deficient, and in any case, foods like bread and pasta aren't one of the major sources of protein for most people," he said. "So that's not likely to have a significant effect on health outcomes."
What does concern Wu, though, is the "health halo" effect of the gluten-free label.Consumers see a gluten-free junk food -- like one of the cookies observed in the study -- and allow themselves to eat more than they should. He noted that this phenomenon is well documented in the literature on other health claiming labels, such as "low-fat" or even "organic."
"Having a gluten-free label could detract from the overall health message, which is that eating unprocessed whole foods such as fruits and vegetables is the best course of action for most people," Wu said.
This study doesn't answer every question about the healthfulness of gluten-free foods. Its authors didn't examine micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. (Though other studies have indicated that gluten-free foods often contain lower levels of important micronutrients than the alternative.) And their results might have been different if they had looked at foods sold in American, rather than Australian, stores.
The biggest question mark of all surrounds the idea of non-celiac gluten intolerance, which is little understood and even controversial among doctors and nutritionists. For that reason, Wu recommended that anyone who suspects they may be gluten intolerant should seek medical advice before embarking on a new diet.
Also on HuffPost: