Unless you have celiac.
Here's a real buzzkill for anyone who's still eating gluten-free because they think it's healthier: Packaged gluten-free foods are shitty substitutes for packaged gluten-containing foods, nutritionally speaking. That's according to research that will be presented tomorrow at the annual meeting for the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition.
People with celiac disease have to fully extricate gluten from their lives because the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye will damage their small intestine and prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. This autoimmune disorder is unpleasant for adults and can stunt growth and development in children. (There are other people who are truly sensitive to wheat-containing products but test negative for celiac, but that's a whole other story.)
Thankfully, there are gluten-free versions of the foods people like to eat, including bread and pasta, but in order to get a similar flavor and texture, companies have to add other ingredients, like corn or rice flour and potato starch. These kinds of tweaks lead to changes in the products' nutritional profile—that is, the amount of calories, protein, fat, carbs, fiber, and sugar per serving. So a team from The Medical Research Institute Hospital La Fe in Valencia, Spain, decided to investigate.
Researchers bought 654 gluten-free products and compared them to 655 of their gluten-containing counterparts by analyzing the data on the nutrition facts labels. They broke the foods into the following groups, per the study abstract: bread, roll bread, bread toast, bread bun, pasta, flour, breakfast cereal, biscuits, pastries, pizza, snacks, ready meals, battered, and ice cream. (Gluten-free ice cream?! Also: so many kinds of bread.)
They found that, overall, GF products were slightly higher in calories than traditional ones and contained way less protein (gluten is a protein, after all). Some standard foods had two to three times the amount of protein than their GF versions, especially in the case of bread, pasta, pizza, and flour. Gluten-free bread was a particularly weak replacement: Not only was it lower in protein, it was higher in sugar and fat than regular bread. Several GF foods actually had equal or higher amounts of fiber compared to standard products, but GF pasta, cereal, and snacks had lower fiber content.
A few requisite caveats: All food products were purchased in Spain, so it's unclear if the findings would be replicated in other countries. And this research has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The authors called for gluten-free foods to be reformulated so that they have similar nutritional values to their gluten-y counterparts; they also want food labels to indicate if a GF product varies significantly from the "real" version. They said their study offers important information for anyone with celiac disease, parents of kids with celiac, and, of course, for people who shop in the gluten-free section as a "well-being choice"—aka for no other reason than thinking it's better for them.
Another recent paper warned that gluten-avoiders who don't have celiac might inadvertently limit the amount of whole grains they eat, which could, in turn, raise their risk of heart disease. (PSA: There are other gluten-free whole grains besides rice and quinoa, including amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, sorghum, and teff, but of course the first two are the most common.)
So for the gazillionth time: Unless you have celiac, going gluten-free is not any healthier; in fact, it might be less healthy.