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This week we explore the headline ‘Gluten free foods are more expensive and less healthy’. The story was picked up in The Independent and The Sun, amongst others.

It is based on a study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, which compared the nutritional information and cost of gluten free foods available in the UK (679 products) and comparable regular foods (1045 products).

Findings from the study include:

  • More gluten free foods were classified as containing high and medium fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) compared to the regular foods, using the traffic light labelling system.
  • More gluten free bread and flour products contained high fat and sugar.
  • Fewer gluten free crackers contained high fat and sugar.
  • Gluten free products were more likely to be lower in fibre and protein than regular foods.
  • Gluten free foods had higher salt content than regular products.
  • Gluten free products were 159% more expensive than the regular ones (working out as £1.14/100g vs £0.44/100g).


Behind the headlines: the Nutrilicious dietetic view

We should note there were some limitations to the study:

  • It’s a comparison of products and did not look at actual overall dietary nutrient intake of people who eat gluten free food. So we don’t know the context of these findings: one person may have an overall more healthy diet than someone else.
  • Composition of foods is based on food labels and not the chemical analysis (the gold standard method).

Nevertheless, it analysed a significant number of products and is very relevant and important to consider. Although the traffic light labelling system is only one way to look at whether a food is healthy, it is still a useful guide. Gluten free foods were typically higher in HFSS.

Let’s look at just one of the nutritional differences found: fibre. Overall it was found that gluten free foods are often lower in fibre. The latest report from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) on Carbohydrates and Health recommended that adults aim for 30g fibre per day. The current average falls below this at 18g per day. In the analysis, regular wholegrain pasta averaged at 8.0g fibre per 100g (a large single portion), whereas the gluten free comparison averaged at just 3.2g.

A number of foods included within the study are processed; the gluten free varieties will often have ingredients added to replace the gluten, which can cause problems in terms of nutrition.

Following a gluten free diet

A gluten free diet is necessary for medically diagnosed conditions, for example coeliac disease.

Following a Department of Health consultation, some UK National Health Service Trusts have compromised and/or withdrawn gluten free prescriptions. There is a concern that not all individuals with coeliac disease will be willing to spend the extra money on gluten free foods and suffer health problems as a result. Coeliac UK are currently campaigning to try and protect gluten free prescriptions. See details here

Sarah Sleet from Coeliac UK responded to the study: “It’s really important that the quality of gluten free foods is as good as that available for all consumers. We’re not surprised to see the research shows the high cost of gluten free food, which will make it difficult for patients with coeliac disease, particularly the most vulnerable, to stick to the gluten free diet should the Department of Health remove gluten free food on prescription.”

The trend

In recent years, following a gluten free diet has become a wider trend, with many celebrities following it. This study of a significant number of products highlights that following such a diet without a medical need for it may not have any nutritional advantages over a regular diet. Not to mention it costs a whole lot more.

Takeaway points

  • Many whole foods are naturally gluten free e.g. quinoa, brown rice, pulses. Opting for these, rather than the foods trying to mimic/replace gluten, could be of benefit to those following a gluten free diet.
  • In reality, many will continue to choose ready-prepared options and rely on such foods such as shop-bought bread. So people who medically require a gluten free diet need access healthier foods at a lower cost, especially in light of prescription cuts.
  • If you’re someone who chooses gluten free because you think it’s healthier, check the nutritional values of products carefully.
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