A research report from Safefood, an Ireland-based consumer advocacy organization, found three-quarters of the 67 gluten-free snack foods it surveyed in 2018 were high in fat and 69% had elevated levels of sugar. The calorie levels of the nut products, savory snacks, cereal, baked products and confectionery items surveyed were about the same as a standard chocolate bar, the group said.
Twenty-three percent of the 2,000 consumers in Ireland surveyed purchased gluten-free foods, the report found, but 92% of them didn't have a gluten-related disorder or had not been medically diagnosed with celiac disease. Of those surveyed, 23% thought gluten-free products had less fat, 21% believed they had less sugar, and 19% thought a gluten-free diet was a healthy way to lose weight.
Catherine Conlon, Safefood's director of human health and nutrition, said in a release that there's no consistent evidence a gluten-free diet will improve your health if you aren’t sensitive to gluten. "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," she said.
This report tarnishes the health halo gluten-free foods have long been wearing, so its results might surprise consumers who have been avoiding the proteins despite having no health problems related to its consumption. Gluten, which helps to hold foods together, is found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye.
Similar to Ireland, U.S. consumers without celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity have been flocking to buy gluten-free items. According to a 2105 study from The Hartman Group, 35% of U.S. consumers have no real reason to do so. Another report published in 2016 by Mayo Clinic Proceedings reported those who identified as "people without celiac disease avoiding gluten" tripled between 2009 and 2014.
So far, this market shows no signs of slowing. Packaged Facts projected U.S. sales of gluten-free products would exceed $2 billion by 2019. Research and Markets has been even more optimistic, predicting the U.S. gluten-free food market would more than double by 2025 from about $2.7 billion in 2018.
Many of those who choose to go gluten-free without a compelling medical reason say it's healthier, especially millennials. According to a 2018 article from Australia's Monash University, a gluten-free diet often excludes items not known for their health attributes such as cakes, biscuits, crackers and beer. Gluten-free also taps into the free-from trend that encompasses allergens, artificial colors and flavors, saturated fat, genetic modification and other less-desirable ingredients.
It's possible the results of this Irish study may cause some consumers to go back to eating foods containing gluten but which have less sugar and fat than the gluten-free snack foods the researchers surveyed. Manufacturers of gluten-free foods might take a closer look at what they're producing and ask whether they need to be going to the trouble of leaving out gluten.
Still, gluten-free remains a popular buzzword in the food space among consumers. So unless the Safefood study gains momentum with shoppers, purchases of these foods are unlikely to slow anytime soon, and food manufacturers have little reason to change what they have recently been doing with gluten-free foods.
Staying the course is further underscored by the premium price attached to gluten-free foods. According to a 2019 U.S. market basket survey, gluten-free foods generally cost 83% more than non-gluten-free ones, and gluten-free foods from mass-market producers are 39% more. As a result, manufacturers have an incentive to keep producing gluten-free items as long as production costs remain reasonable and consumers keep buying them.