The truth about gluten

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, has become the latest dietary villain, blamed for everything from forgetfulness to joint pain to weight gain. But Consumer Reports (CR) is shedding light on common misconceptions about going gluten-free.

The full report, “The Truth About Gluten,” is available online at ConsumerReports.org and in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports. The report points out that a gluten-free claim doesn’t mean the product is necessarily more nutritious, it may actually be less so; that consumers may increase their exposure to arsenic by going gluten-free, and a gluten-free diet might cause weight gain—not weight loss. And, most gluten-free foods cost more than their regular counterparts.

Still, a new survey of more than 1,000 Americans conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that about a third of people buy gluten-free products or try to avoid gluten. Among the top benefits they cited were better digestion and gastrointestinal function, healthy weight loss, increased energy, lower cholesterol, and a stronger immune system.

“While people may feel better on a gluten-free diet, there is little evidence to support that their improved health is related to the elimination of gluten from their diet,” says Trisha Calvo, deputy content editor for health and food at Consumer Reports.

Mintel International estimates the market for gluten-free foods has grown 63 percent from 2012-2014, and the firm estimates it will achieve $8.8 billion in sales during 2014. All gluten-free food segments increased in the past year, though snacks increased the most, according to the market research firm. The bread products and cereals segment saw gains of 43 percent and is set to reach $1.3 billion this year. Bread and cereal are ripe for gluten-free growth, Mintel said.

“Overall, the gluten-free food market continues to thrive off those who must maintain a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, as well as those who perceive gluten-free foods to be healthier or more natural,” says Amanda Topper, a food analyst at Mintel.

The market for gluten-free products may be changing, according to Mintel. For example, 33 percent of consumers surveyed in 2013 agreed that “gluten-free diets are a fad.” The number increased to 44 percent of Americans in 2014. However, that has not slowed the segment’s popularity with 22 percent of Americans saying they currently follow a gluten-free diet, compared to 15 percent in 2013.

Yet unless someone has a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease – an autoimmune condition in which gluten causes potentially life-threatening intestinal damage – Consumer Reports says there is little reason to eliminate gluten, and doing so may actually be a disservice to one’s health. Less than seven percent of Americans have these conditions.

A quarter of the people CR surveyed thought gluten-free foods have more vitamins and minerals than other foods. But CR’s review of 81 products free of gluten across 12 categories revealed they’re a mixed bag in terms of nutrition. Many gluten-free foods aren’t enriched or fortified with nutrients such as folic acid and iron as many products that contain wheat flours are.

And according to CR’s survey, more than a third of Americans think that going gluten-free will help them slim down, but there’s very little evidence that doing so is a good weight-loss strategy; in fact, the opposite is often true. Ditching gluten often means adding sugar, fat, and sodium, which are often used to pump up the flavor in these foods; these foods also might have more calories and consuming them could cause some people to gain weight.

Advice for Your Customer

For those who must cut out gluten, Consumer Reports recommends doing so in a healthy way and has some suggestions on how to do so below:

Eat grains. For those on a gluten-free diet or not, eating a variety of grains is healthy, so don’t cut out whole grains.  Replace wheat with amaranth, corn, millet quinoa, teff, and the occasional serving of rice.

Read the label. Minimize the intake of packaged foods made with refined rice or potato flours; choose those with no-gluten, non-rice whole grains instead. When buying processed foods, keep an eye on the sugar, fat, and sodium content of the product.