Gluten-free is the health food rage of the moment, but research shows that most gluten-free snacks for children are generally unhealthful and packed with sugar. In the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Calgary, Alberta, looked at 374 products marketed to children, evaluated their nutritional content and compared the results with those of gluten-filled counterparts. About 88 percent of the gluten-free products were considered to have “poor nutritional quality” compared with 97 percent of processed foods without a gluten-free claim. The researchers also compared 43 gluten-free food products and their counterparts — such as oatmeal and macaroni and cheese — and found no nutritional superiority: They were of equally poor nutritional quality. “For the parents who have children who aren’t gluten intolerant and are buying them because they think it will be healthier, that’s not the case,” said Charlene Elliott, lead author of the study. “And it shows the challenge for parents who have children with gluten intolerance of getting adequate nutritional intake from the packaged foods that are available.” Published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, the study says that while most of the gluten-free products were low in sodium, total fat and saturated fat, they had less protein and more calories from added sugar. Gluten is a starchy protein found in wheat, barley and rye that acts as a bonding agent and gives bread, pastries and pasta their shape and texture. For people who can’t digest gluten, eating such products can trigger an autoimmune response that upsets the digestive system and prevents key nutrients from being absorbed — otherwise known as celiac disease. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, about 3 million Americans have the disorder, though about 83 percent of cases are undiagnosed. Federal statistics estimate that 1 in 141 Americans have the disease, also with low rates of awareness. Before the packaged food industry started developing gluten-free products, people with celiac disease had to avoid those food staples. “We think gluten-free diets became popular when you didn’t have all these options,” said Marilyn G. Geller, CEO of the Celiac Disease Foundation. “People weren’t eating muffins, cookies and pasta.” But the industry caught on, and now there are gluten-free substitutes for nearly every product on grocery shelves. To make the products more appealing and similar to gluten-filled products, companies had to add more sugar and fat, Ms. Geller said. But this message isn’t being transmitted to the public, who more often believe that a gluten-free label is a healthful nutritional choice.
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