Almost one-quarter of Irish people buy gluten-free foods, despite the fact that the vast majority of them do not have a gluten-related disorder, a new report from Safefood has revealed.
Furthermore, while many people may believe that gluten-free foods are a healthier option, a survey of the nutritional content of some of these products finds otherwise.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The report showed that in Ireland, 23% of people buy gluten-free foods, however 92% of these do not have a gluten-related disorder or have not been diagnosed with coeliac disease.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that prevents those affected from digesting gluten. Symptoms can include weight loss, abdominal pain, recurring mouth ulcers, crippling fatigue, diarrhoea, vomiting and anaemia.
There is no cure and the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life.
In recent years, the number of people without conditions such as coeliac disease, who choose to consume gluten-free foods, has increased significantly. The gluten-free food market was worth €66 million in 2017, according to industry estimates, an increase of 33% on the previous year.
However the report by Safefood indicates major misperceptions around the potential health benefits of gluten-free foods. It found that 23% of people think that these foods are lower in fat, 21% think they are lower in sugar and 19% believe a gluten-free diet is a healthy way to lose weight.
In response to this, Safefood carried out a survey of the nutritional content of 67 gluten-free snack foods, including nut products, cereal products and confectionary.
This survey revealed that 75% of these products were high in fat and 69% were high in sugar, with calorie levels similar to a standard chocolate bar.
"For those people who have a diagnosis of coeliac disease or those with a gluten-related disorder, avoiding gluten in their daily diet is an absolute must. However, 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.
"Snacking on foods such as fruit and vegetables, unsalted plain nuts and gluten-free rice cakes and cheese, are healthier options for us all," explained Dr Catherine Conlon of Safefood.
She highlighted the fact that in this survey, the vast majority of people buying gluten-free products "have no medical reason to avoid gluten".
"There is no consistent evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve your health if you aren't sensitive to gluten. Many of the gluten-free snacks we surveyed are high in fat and sugar like other treat foods," she commented.
The report noted that the rise of the gluten-free diet may be partly due to "an increase in media interest and the promotion of elimination diets by health and wellness influencers".
"The increasing popularity of bloggers and authors who claim that following a gluten-free diet will lead to improved health has contributed to gluten becoming a hot topic of discussion in the media," the report stated.
Dr Conlon added that similar to recent food trends, such as high-protein foods, gluten-free food "is big business with an audience of people willing to purchase these products".
"In the case of gluten-free snacks, you could end up purchasing snack foods with lots of added fat and sugar, which are of no added benefit to your health," she said.
The report was welcomed by the Coeliac Society of Ireland, which said that it highlights issues around the disease and gluten intolerance. The society also welcomed the growth in gluten-free products as these have given more options to people with gluten-related disorders.
However according to Gill Brennan, CEO of the Coeliac Society, the research suggests that there is still work to be done by food producers to reduce the levels of fat and sugar in some products, "and to increase understanding around gluten-free foods and why people eat them".
The report, Cutting Out Gluten - the nutrient profile of gluten-free snacks on the island of Ireland, can be viewed here.
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