As a dietician, Pam Cureton wouldn’t recommend a gluten-free diet for people who want to lose weight because many products contain high levels of refined rice or another alternative flour and starches as well as a low amount of fiber.

“Weight gain is very common for our celiac patients,” said Ms. Cureton, clinical and research dietician at the Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore specializing in the treatment of celiac disease, and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board,

And many of the most successful gluten-free products are loaded with indulgent ingredients that sometimes make them taste just as rewarding as conventional baked goods.

In fact, handmade caramel, chocolate, raspberry jam and fancy pecans add layers of flavor that go a long way when creating dessert bars. Jill Bommarito, founder and president of Ethel’s Baking Co., Shelby Township, Mich., noted that its treats must pass the taste test for gluten-free and “gluten-full” consumers.

“We will not bring an item to market that is ‘good for gluten-free,’ ” Ms. Bommarito said. “It must be fantastic and outperform traditional products in the same space.”

Ethel’s small-batch specialty bars include such varieties as its signature Pecan Dandy that comes with a shortbread butter crust and caramel that’s topped with large pecans.

Ms. Bommarito noted the company is “in this for the long haul” with indulgent products that remain relevant despite variations to diets and shifting consumer trends.

“We are here to be that special treat that grandma would have made for you,” she said. “We have benefitted from other specialty diets in that all are educating consumers, helping them become better label-readers and helping them understand the calories they are investing in. We believe Ethel’s taste, clean ingredients, transparency and commitment to craft add value for consumers that care about the food choices they make for themselves and their families.”

A three-pack of the dessert bars, or about 9 oz. of product, has a suggested retail $8.99 to $9.99 while a new single-serve bar goes for $2.99.

“The cost of our products is not a result of being gluten-free as much as due to the quality of nuts, butter and chocolate, along with time being our largest ingredient,” Ms. Bommarito said. “We won’t compromise on taste.”

Tim Pollak, partner and head of strategy for Bethlehem, Pa.-based Factory LLC, whose brands include Mikey’s baked goods, including grain-free English muffins, uses terms such as “transparent” and “trust” to describe its products for people who follow a gluten-free or allergen-friendly diet.

He said the strategy is to branch beyond gluten-free with baked goods that offer clean labels, dense nutrition, variety and, of course, great taste.

“To the extent some people feel self-conscious or stigmatized eating restrictive diets, the growing popularity of specialty diets is validating,” Mr. Pollak explained. “It makes gluten-free feel less ‘medicinal.’ The overlap of benefits — for example, Mikey’s English muffins are keto and paleo in addition to being gluten-, grain-, dairy- and soy-free — presents an opportunity to introduce allergen-friendly eating to low-carb seekers.”

[Related reading: Gluten-free products play in a bigger arena]

Mr. Pollak suggested that consumers who perceive gluten-free as synonymous with better-for-you may be disillusioned when they discover that removing gluten does not add nutritional value.

“An educated consumer needs to be knowledgeable about both diets and brands,” he said. “As Mikey’s has prioritized nutritional value and taste, educated consumers have become our most loyal customers.”

Overall, gluten-free, keto and other diets remain popular because they’re a lifestyle choice that’s designed to improve well-being for some and offer a medical necessity for others, noted Anne Marie Halfmann, senior manager of category for North America marketing, Dawn Foods.

The Jackson, Mich.-based company’s gluten-free line is certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for those with celiac disease, but the bases for cakes, donuts, cookies and other baked goods are targeted toward all consumers.

“Gluten-free product sales have certainly benefitted from the rise in low-carb diets such as keto and paleo,” Ms. Halfmann said. “However, there is still a lot of confusion among customers on these diets related to their purposes and their rules.”

She added the company works with bakers so they have the knowledge to provide proper recommendations to consumers.

Ms. Cureton strongly suggested that consumers consult with a dietician or health professional to determine whether a gluten-free, keto or any other diet is appropriate, if not only for their health and well-being but also for their pocketbooks.

“There’s no harm with eating gluten-free bread, except for the price,” she said. “The manufacturers are helping a specific population that desperately needs their products, and I’m very thankful that they’re able to make these products for people who need them.”

This article is an excerpt from the December 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on gluten-free trends, click here.