The term “gluten-free” may lead some consumers to think they are getting an overall healthier option, according to new research conducted by nutrition experts at the University of Florida. Study author Karla Shelnutt, a UF assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences, says the gluten-free diet is popular with women trying to lose weight, but it might not be their best choice if they don’t have celiac disease, which affects just one per cent of the population.
Refined gluten-free foods are often not fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, she says, and those for whom a gluten-free diet is necessary are advised to carefully balance their diet or take a vitamin supplement. “The problem is you have a lot of healthy women who choose a gluten-free diet because they believe it is healthier for them and can help them lose weight and give them healthier skin,” says Shelnutt. For example, Shelnutt says, these women will start avoiding foods like cereals fortified with folic acid, which is well-known to be essential for women’s health.
The $10.5 billion gluten-free food and beverage industry grew 44 per cent between 2011 and 2013, according to market research company Mintel, which estimates sales will skyrocket to $15 billion by 2016. The study was conducted over the course of a day and aimed to assess people’s taste for gluten-free foods and their perception of the gluten-free diet by means of taste testing and a questionnaire.
One third of the 97 male and female participants said they believed gluten-free foods were healthier than their conventional counterparts, which surprised Shelnutt and her team, who had expected the figure to be lower. Nearly 60 per cent of participants said they believed a gluten-free diet can treat adverse medical conditions and 35 per cent believed gluten-free could ameliorate digestive health.
As far as overall health is concerned, 31 per cent of participants believed gluten-free was “healthier” and 32 per cent believed doctors prescribed gluten-free eating for weight loss and felt that gluten-free would improve the diet in general. According to Shelnutt, eating gluten-free can lead to weight loss because the diet reduces carbohydrate intake, although this can be achieved without adhering to gluten-free labeling.
Shelnutt admits that a participant group of 97 is not large enough to be considered representative of the general public’s opinion, but it does provide important insight.