One of the main drivers of the gluten-free market is a desire for healthier diets and better nutrition – as opposed to medical need – but how healthy is the nutritional profile of typical gluten-free foods?
Until just a few years ago, the major motivation for most people buying gluten-free foods was coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder with symptoms triggered by gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley and spelt.
Increasingly, however, gluten-containing grains have been shunned by a wider group of consumers, including the families of those with coeliac disease also eating gluten-free foods as they have become more palatable, non-coeliac consumers finding abdominal symptoms are eased when they eliminate gluten from their diets, and others who perceive gluten-free foods to be generally healthier or less calorific.
But against this backdrop of popularity, there are concerns about the nutritional value of staple foods made with gluten-free ingredients, like rice, corn and potato flour, and hydrocolloids and starches to improve texture.
Ingredion’s Cathrin Kurz, marketing manager bakery for Europe, told FoodNavigator: “What we have seen is that gluten-free has grown out of being a niche and only a medical product to a lifestyle product. Lack of gluten is often perceived as healthier but this is often a misperception, and gluten-free foods can contain more fat and sugar. …They are not healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts.”
Modern formulations with ancient grains
Over the past few years, these health concerns have led to a flurry of research into potential nutrition-boosting ingredients for gluten-free foods, including pulse and legume flours, and so-called ‘ancient’ grains – a range of gluten-free grains that have fallen from favour in western diets, such as quinoa, amaranth and teff. However, these options are often much more expensive than wheat flours and are by no means standard in gluten-free products.
“The nutritional composition of gluten-free substitute foods like breads varies,” said a Coeliac UK spokesperson.
“There are a number of gluten-free grains available that can add nutritional quality to the gluten-free diet. Grains and cereals like quinoa, sorghum, teff and buckwheat can be used to provide a source of protein and fibre in the diet, and along with flours made from these they are being used more commonly in gluten-free products.”
Meanwhile, a Leatherhead Food Research comparison of a ‘typical’ gluten-free bread and standard bread shows that the nutritional value of gluten-free isn’t necessarily as lamentable as is sometimes claimed. It found that gluten-free bread tends to be much higher in fat and slightly higher in calories than regular bread, but regular bread is more likely to be higher in sugar and salt.
As for a simpler staple food like pasta, it is the standard pasta that tends to be higher in fat, calories and sugars than a typical gluten-free version, Leatherhead found.
Coeliac UK said: “We know that some fresh gluten-free breads for example contain significantly higher levels of fat than standard breads; however there are also lower fat loaves available. We encourage people to check labels carefully and choose lower fat versions where needed. Also some products are fortified with calcium for example, but this is not across the board.”
Technical development chef at Ingredion, Caterina Loduca, said that nutritious ingredients like ancient grains were becoming easier to find, but there were still technical challenges to using them in the place of wheat flour, and they tended to be used in combination with starches for structure.
“Every year we actually see a better and better standard [of gluten-free products],” she said. “First of all, because there are more people buying the products, the turnover is higher.”
This means that products are no longer sitting on supermarket shelves for as long, so they have less chance to approach the end of their shelf life.
“Then the companies are making more effort,” she said. “They really want to compete with other products. We also started to use many other ingredients. We are discovering new ingredients and ingredients with a different personality.”