From the Journals

Children’s ‘gluten-free’ foods are no healthier than others



Children’s foods labeled as gluten-free (GF) generally had less sodium and fat than other foods marketed for children, but they also had a higher percentage of calories from sugar, a study in Pediatrics found. Further, the majority of foods marketed for children, whether gluten-free or not, had low nutritional value overall.

Courtesy National Cancer Institute
“Despite the health halo associated with GF products, this study reveals that child-targeted GF foods are not nutritionally superior to the children’s food products without a specific GF claim in the supermarket,” wrote Charlene Elliott, PhD, of the University of Calgary in Alberta.

Parents and caregivers who are purchasing gluten-free products should carefully assess product labels. Another positive step would be to serve whole, unprocessed food, she wrote in Pediatrics.

Dr. Elliott purchased all child-targeted packaged foods available at two major supermarket chains in Alberta from February 2017 to March 2017, excluding candy, chocolate, potato chips, cheese-flavored snacks, sugary sodas, and similar “junk food” products. Of the 374 foods purchased, 18% had gluten-free claims.

“The intent was to examine the regular foods that have been repackaged to attract children,” she wrote, which she defined as meeting any of the following criteria qualified:

  • Contains the word “child” or “kids’” in the product or brand name.
  • Has the word “fun” or “play” on the package.
  • The foods are linked to children’s TV programs, toys, or movies.
  • The foods are promoted for lunch boxes.
  • Contains graphics or activities, or promotional offers, intended for children.
  • “Presents unusual or child-oriented shapes, unusual colors, or playful product names or tastes.”

Dr. Elliott compared the nutritional content of products labeled as gluten-free with that of products without a gluten-free label based on 100-g servings. She then compared the same GF-labeled products to their equivalent products without a GF label, when possible.

She used the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Nutrient Profile Model to evaluate the foods. PAHO criteria for nutritionally poor qualities include the following when applied to “processed” and “ultraprocessed” foods:

  • A ratio between sodium and calories greater than or equal to 1.
  • Total calories from sugar (glucose, fructose, and disaccharides) at least 10% or more of total calories.
  • Contains other nonsugar sweeteners.
  • Total calories from fat are at least 30% or more of total calories.
  • Total saturated fat is at least at least 10% or more of total calories.

Nearly all the non-gluten free children’s foods (97%) and 88% of the children’s gluten-free foods were considered to have poor nutritional quality (P less than .001). High sugar content was present in 79% of gluten-free products and 81% of their gluten-containing equivalent products (P less than .001).

These foods can be classified as unhealthy because of “their high levels of sugar, sodium, and/or fat, which means that the options for purchasing healthy packaged foods are limited,” Dr. Elliott wrote.

Gluten free–labeled products did have less sodium, total fat, and saturated fat than did those without gluten-free claims, but sugar levels were higher and protein levels lower (nonstatistically significant) in gluten-free products.

“Such findings echo those in other studies of child-targeted supermarket foods and reveal that products marketed as ‘better for you’ for children are as much about marketing as they are about nutrition,” Dr. Elliott wrote. “Given children’s lower daily caloric intake and the challenges associated with consuming a nutrient-rich, gluten-free diet for children with celiac disease in particular, it is important that the products designed for children are held to a higher nutritional standard.”

The study’s biggest limitations are its inability to represent all child-marketed packaged foods available in stores and the fact that many foods labeled as “gluten-free” would not have gluten in them anyway, such as apple sauce and fruit snacks.

“In this case, the use of a gluten-free claim on products that are inherently free of gluten might be understood as a marketing tool directed at consumers who view gluten-free products as healthier than their regular counterparts,” Dr. Elliott noted

The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Canada Research Chairs Program. Dr. Elliott had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Elliott C. Pediatrics. 2018 Jul 20. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-0525.

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