Myths of Gluten-Free Diets Not Supported by Research

Davy James, Associate Editor
Published Online: Thursday, August 7, 2014
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People eating gluten-free food may not be getting essential nutrients, nutrition expert warns.

People who choose a gluten-free diet may be missing out on vital nutrients if they are not eating a balanced diet or taking a multivitamin supplement, according to researchers at the University of Florida.

Those with celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population, subsist on a gluten-free diet as the only treatment for their condition, but those who follow the same diet believing it offers them health benefits are mistaken, said Karla Shelnutt, a UF assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences. Despite the fact that avoiding food with gluten reduces carbohydrate intake, which can lead to weight loss, the study points to research that finds a gluten-free diet is no healthier than conventional diets.

"If I'm a college student, and I want to lose weight, and I read on the Internet that a gluten-free diet is the way to go, I may start avoiding products that contain essential nutrients such as those found in cereal grains fortified with folic acid," Shelnutt said in a press release. "The problem is you have a lot of healthy women who choose a gluten-free diet because they believe it is healthier for them and can help them lose weight and give them healthier skin."

In a single day test conducted on the UF campus, researchers gave 97 people gluten-free cookies and chips, with half labeled appropriately as gluten-free and the other half labeled as conventional food. The participants in the study were asked to fill out a questionnaire on gluten-free diets and rate the food on a 9-point scale for how much they liked the flavor and texture. Participants reported no significant differences in the likeability, taste, or texture for either product. A total of 57% of participants said gluten-free diets were used to treat medical conditions and 32% of participants said gluten-free diets are prescribed for weight loss.

Additionally, 31% of participants indicated that excluding gluten from an otherwise healthy diet improves overall health, 35% said it improves digestive health, 32% said it improves the diet, and 21% said it improves skin condition and complexion.

What’s more, 37% of participants said they believed gluten-free foods are healthier than conventional foods.

Over the last 3 years, the gluten-free food industry has grown 44%, with an estimated sales total projected to exceed $15 billion by 2016, according to the study.

“Results from this study indicate that gluten-free labels do not significantly impact consumer's perceptions of food quality, although consumers may have unsubstantiated beliefs about the healthfulness and potential positive impact of gluten-free diets,” the researchers concluded.
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