Researchers warn that gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier

Gluten-free refers to foods that do not contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity avoid foods containing gluten to prevent adverse health effects. The popularity of gluten-free diets has also grown in recent years as a healthy lifestyle choice.

For 9 years, a research team from the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) has carried out an analysis of gluten-free products to determine if they are nutritionally deficient.

There has been a significant increase in celiac disease cases over the years. Experts suggest that this growth may be due to two reasons. First, the number of people with celiac disease may be increasing due to environmental factors. Second, improved and increased diagnostics may also be a factor. It is important to note that gluten can cause other disorders in addition to celiac disease.

The increase in cases of celiac disease has gained public attention, resulting in a worrying problem. Many people perceive a gluten-free diet as healthier than one that contains gluten. However, this is a misconception and may, in fact, be counterproductive.

“Certain attributes that are not in themselves linked to the diet are attributed to the diet. The data show that gluten-free products are not healthier,” according to Jonatan Miranda-Gómez, a pharmacist at the UPV/EHU and researcher in the Gluten 3S research group. This group is accredited to grant the ISO standard seal that guarantees that gluten-free products are truly gluten-free.

Miranda’s team has been carrying out nutritional analysis of gluten-free products for several years. “In 2014, we published a pretty groundbreaking scientific paper,” Miranda said. “In this, we compared 200 gluten-free foods with their equivalents that contain gluten. Nutritionally, they are not on par with each other.”

Jonathan Miranda Gomez

Jonatan Miranda-Gómez is a researcher in the Gluten 3S group of the UPV/EHU, who has led extensive research into gluten-free products. Credit: Nuria Gonzalez, UPV/EHU

Many of the gluten-free products contain more unsaturated lipids (or harmful fats) than those containing gluten, were lower in fiber, and their salt and protein content should be monitored. But the situation is changing all the time and the results of another study have just been published in the journal Food.

Evolution over a period of nine years

The proportion of celiacs has not changed and remains at around 1%. However, the population has increased and gluten sensitivities have also emerged, which means that when this group is also considered, the problem affects 10% of the population.

“The industry has been aware of this,” Miranda said. “So it developed more products, which allowed the industry itself to do more research and take into account other components. At some point, this moment of social team and research led to an evolution in the industry. And there has been a noticeable improvement.

Pasta is a case. Gluten-free pasta is not made from wheat, because it contains gluten, but from corn. Cornmeal has always been the main ingredient. This has not changed in the last nine years. However, while in the past the second most important ingredient was rice flour, today the most common ingredient is millet.

“This had a positive effect on nutrition,” Miranda said. “To produce pasta, you have to extrude, and millet allows extrusion to be carried out with less lipids.” In addition, food legislation initiatives have contributed, since changes in recent years have led to changes in pasta ingredients.

In the case of non-solid products, producers resort to other strategies. An example is beer. In this case, instead of replacing the gluten, it is split by the addition of enzymes during the clarification process (when the suspended particles are separated from the liquid).

“But this process has another limitation,” added Miranda. “Harmful molecules can go unnoticed during routine analysis. Members of the Celiac Association sometimes tell us that gluten-free beer does not agree with them. So a new line of research has been opened to analyze the problems of these beers.

As for Miranda, the problem is clearly a broad one. “In recent years, articles have shown that other molecules can also be harmful and that even if you follow a strict gluten-free diet, these gluten-free products can still cause discomfort.

They also want to add another focus to the research and look at the environmental aspect. “We want to find out the environmental impact of gluten-free food. They tend to have a greater impact than the rest, because some ingredients have to be imported from abroad, for example. That impact should be reduced. For example, millet sourcing should be explored,” said Miranda.

Reference: “Gluten-free products: Do we need to update our knowledge?” by Claudia Mármol-Soler, Silvia Matias, Jonatan Miranda, Idoia Larretxi, María del Pilar Fernández-Gil, María Ángeles Bustamante, Itziar Churruca, Olaia Martínez and Edurne Simón, November 28, 2022, Food.
DOI: 10.3390/foods11233839

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