CALGARY, ALTA. — Gluten-free supermarket foods that are targeted at children are not nutritionally superior to regular child-targeted foods, according to a study from the University of Calgary.

“The health halo often attributed to the GF (gluten-free) label is not warranted, and parents who substitute GF products for their product equivalents (assuming GF products to be healthier) are mistaken,” the study said. “Parents of children with gluten intolerance and/or sensitivity, along with parents who purchase GF products for other health reasons, need to carefully assess product labels when making purchases.”

The study may be found here.

Overall, child-targeted gluten-free products had lower levels of sodium, total fat and saturated fat, according to the study that appeared online July 23 in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The gluten-free products, however, had less protein and a similar percentage of calories from sugar compared with child-targeted products without a gluten-free claim.

Charlene Elliott, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Film at the University of Calgary, led the study. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Canada Research Chairs Program provided funding.

The study followed criteria to establish whether items were targeted to children, such as containing the words “kids” or “child”; linked with children’s TV programs, merchandise or movies; promoted for lunchboxes; and containing child-friendly graphics or activities. Candy and junk food were excluded, meaning confectionery products, potato chips, cheese-flavored snacks and sugary soft drinks were some of the items not analyzed in the study.

Researchers purchased 374 child-targeted products from both Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Sobeys, Inc. supermarkets from February to March in 2017. Of the 374 products, 66 had a specific gluten-free claim. Products with a gluten-free claim were compared to those without such a claim. Another analysis compared the nutrient profile of child-targeted gluten-free products to their product equivalents.

The study used the Pan American Health Organization Nutrient Profile Model to compare the items.  The study found 88% of gluten-free child-targeted products were classified as having poor nutritional quality compared to 97% of the regular child-targeted products.

The study’s findings have implications for children both with and without a gluten intolerance.

“Children with CD (celiac disease) and gluten sensitivity may have difficulty getting adequate nutrition from the packaged foods available in the marketplace,” the study said. “Consuming a nutritionally adequate GF diet has been deemed a major challenge for children, particularly because of the higher glycemic index of processed GF food.”

People with celiac disease must avoid gluten, but people without celiac disease also are purchasing gluten-free items. The study pointed to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., projecting gluten-free market sales in the United States to exceed $2 billion in 2020, which would be an increase of almost $400 million from 2015.

A 2017 report from The Hartman Group, Inc., Bellevue, Wash., revealed only 6% of consumers surveyed said they purchased gluten-free products because they are allergic to gluten. Other reasons for buying gluten-free items were “try something new” (35%), the belief that gluten-free foods are “healthier” (30%), a desire to lose weight (23%), experimenting with a new eating plan (19%) and the belief that gluten-free foods taste better (14%).

“As for the parents who purchase GF products for their children because they believe such items are healthier than regular products, this study reveals that there is little nutritional advantage to doing so,” the University of Calgary study said. “Such findings echo those in other studies of children-targeted supermarket foods and reveal that products marketed as ‘better for you’ for children are as much about marketing as they are about nutrition.”