‘Unfounded beliefs’ abound about gluten-free diets, study

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 1st September 2014
'Unfounded beliefs' abound about gluten-free diets, study
‘Unfounded beliefs’ abound about gluten-free diets, study

While necessary for some, many people eat gluten-free diets because they believe they will gain certain health benefits, but these beliefs are not all supported by research, a University of Florida nutrition expert says.

Those with celiac disease, or about 1 per cent of the U.S. population, must follow a gluten-free diet because it is the only treatment for their condition, said Karla Shelnutt, a University of Florida Assistant Professor in family, youth and community sciences. But gluten-free diets can lack essential nutrients if a person does not eat a balanced diet and/or take a multivitamin supplement, according to Assistant Professor Shelnutt.

Assistant Professor Shelnutt, who is a faculty member with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said that unlike their conventional counterparts, refined gluten-free foods, for the most part, are not enriched or fortified with essential vitamins and minerals.

“If I’m a college student, and I want to lose weight, and I read on the Internet that a gluten-free diet is the way to go, I may start avoiding products that contain essential nutrients such as those found in cereal grains fortified with folic acid,” Assistant Professor Shelnutt said. “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,” she said.

Global gluten-free market growing

The US$10.5-billion gluten-free food and beverage industry has grown 44 percent from 2011-13 as the rate of coeliac disease diagnoses increases, along with awareness of gluten-free foods, according to global market research organisation Mintel. Mintel estimates sales will top $15 billion in 2016.

Gluten, a protein, is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. A gluten-free diet is prescribed for those with coeliac disease, a condition that can damage the lining of the small intestine.

Study analysed consumers’ perceptions of taste and nutrition

One of Assistant Professor Shelnutt’s doctoral students, Caroline Dunn, wanted to know if gluten-free labeling had any impact on how consumers perceive the foods’ taste and nutrition.

In a one-day experiment on the UF campus in Gainesville in February, 97 people ate cookies and chips, all gluten-free. Half were labeled “gluten-free”; the other half labeled “conventional.”

Participants then rated each food on a nine-point scale for how much they liked the flavor and texture. They also filled out a questionnaire.

About a third of participants said they believed gluten-free foods to be healthier than those labeled “conventional,” a figure Assistant Professor Shelnutt said she thought would be much lower. While avoiding gluten-containing foods can reduce carbohydrate intake, thus helping some lose weight, many health experts say a gluten-free diet is no healthier than a conventional diet except for those with coeliac disease.

Although such a small sample cannot be generalised to the public, Assistant Professor Shelnutt said the experiment gives researchers insight into how the public views gluten-free foods.

For example, 57 per cent of participants believed gluten-free diets can be used to alleviate medical conditions, and 32 per cent said doctors prescribe them for weight loss. Thirty-one per cent believed gluten-free diets improved overall health, 35 per cent believed them to improve digestive health, and 32 per cent felt that eating them would improve their diet.

The experiment’s results are published in the current edition of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.