Turns out it’s not a shortcut to health after all.
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Washington Post via Getty Images

While there’s no doubt that the gluten-free designation is a godsend for sufferers of Celiac Disease, many who have no problem digesting grains are turning to rice, potato, and corn flour alternatives in search of broader health benefits both for themselves and their children.

But if you’re the kind of parent who raves about the nutritional advantages of your gluten-free toddler, you may want to step back and reevaluate that approach.

That’s because a new study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that many gluten-free products targeted at kids seem to skate by on the trendiness of the label without offering any substantive nutritional advantages.

Based on the study’s analysis of 66 “GF” foods and 308 “standard” options in a Canadian grocery store, removing gluten often also meant removing proteins and good fats. While processed foods weren’t exactly healthier, many of the gluten free options had a significant percentage of sugar.

The problem isn’t that processed foods are somehow super-nutritious, but that a sizable percentage of us tend to associate the gluten-free designation as an instant signifier of “healthy.” A separate consumer study conducted in Washington State found that a full 30% of those purchasing gluten-free foods did so because they believed them to be “healthier”, while another 23% saw going gluten-free as a way to lose weight.

In conjunction with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ analysis, that suggests that more than half of those who purchased gluten-free foods did so under false pretenses.

“GF supermarket foods that are targeted at children are not nutritionally superior to regular child-targeted foods and may be of greater potential concern because of their sugar content,” the Pediatrics study’s conclusion reads. “The health halo often attributed to the GF label is not warranted, and parents who substitute GF products for their product equivalents (assuming GF products to be healthier) are mistaken.”

With roughly one in 100 children born with Celiac Disease, the data suggests that we’re probably overdoing it with the gluten-free stuff.

Shunning gluten doesn’t make you healthier. In fact, eating whole grains can help with weight loss. And banning it from the processed foods you buy isn’t a shortcut to getting healthier. As it turns out, gluten or no gluten, aiming to eat real foods is the way to go.