Gluten-Free Snacks For Kids Are Not Always Healthier, New Study Finds, & Here's Why

People can become obsessed with finding health hacks, honing in on labels that they think might point to the most nutritious snacks, especially for their kids. A somewhat new trend has parents seeking out gluten-free snacks as healthy alternatives for their little ones over the past few years. But, according to a new study, gluten-free snacks are not always healthier for kids and here's a breakdown as to why.

"The Nutritional Quality of Gluten-Free Products for Children", a study published in the journal Pediatrics in July 2018, set out to compare the healthiness of gluten-free and regular snacks. The researchers did so by looking at the sugar, fat, and sodium content of 347 snacks. As noted by The Daily Meal, some of the snacks were specifically advertised as "gluten-free" (GF) while others were not.

In order to measure the healthfulness of each snack, researchers turned to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Nutrient Profile Model. The PAHO model rates food based on a variety of categories, such as the total fat, trans fat, saturated fat. The model also looks at the amounts of sugar and salt in each snack.

At the end, the study found that, overall, gluten-free snacks are not actually always healthier for kids.

Researchers noted in the study that the gluten-free products they examined had lower levels of sodium, total fat, and saturated fat, but they also had less protein and a similar percentage of calories from sugar compared to other products. For the purpose of the study, junk foods, such as candies and chips, were not included.

The study also found that 88 percent of gluten-free food did not meet nutritional guidelines, according to Reuters. In the study's overview, the researchers noted, "both GF products and 'regular' products designed for children can be classified as having poor nutritional quality."

The researchers conducted their study by focusing on products marketed towards children, purchased from two major supermarket chains in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Products had to meet one of the following criteria to be considered child targeted, according to Pediatrics:

  • The product or brand contained the words "kids," "child," or specifically designed for kids.
  • The product is somehow connected to children's television shows or other pop culture for kids.
  • It was promoted for lunchboxes.
  • It contained "child-friendly graphics," like cartoons or bubble font.
  • Word like "fun," "play," or "kid(s)" were on the package.
  • It contained an offer meant for children, such as a free prize inside the box.
  • It had unusual or child-oriented shapes (like stars or dinosaurs), unusual colors, or playful product names and tastes.

Now, this is not meant to shame parents whose children or household requires a gluten-free diet. There's nothing inherently wrong with buying gluten-free products. Instead, the study is meant to stress that the obsession with gluten free as a new health trend does not automatically mean these snacks are, indeed, better.

For example, one interesting effect that researchers found was gluten-free products tended to have excessive amounts of sugar. According to Pediatrics, of the 66 products labeled as gluten-free, 80 percent had high sugar levels.

“'Gluten-free’ has this halo effect,” registered dietitian and nutritionist Keri Gans reportedly told The Daily Meal. “If you want to choose something gluten-free, there are a lot of really great gluten-free options! You just need to dive deeper, because a lot of gluten-free snacks have lots of added sugar and sodium.”

Marion Groetch, a nutrition and food allergy expert who wasn't involved in the study, shared a similar message with Reuters, saying:

There are many very nutrient dense, whole, gluten-free grains such as amaranth, millet, quinoa, buckwheat. But most gluten-free products are made from rice, corn or potato starch and therefore are even less nutritious than processed products containing wheat. These products hence are lower in fiber, micronutrients, and typically higher in fat and sugar.

For example, child-targeted gluten-free snacks like cookies or biscuits have fewer calories and fruit snacks or applesauce have higher levels of sugar than their equivalents, according to the study. Parents looking for easy gluten-free snacks can try looking at products like Kind bars, which are packed with nutrients. In addition, there are a lot of products that are gluten free, although they may not use a GF label, such as yogurt.

So, for parents who need to buy gluten-free products, remember to pay attention to other parts of the label. Gluten-free just means exactly what it says: there's no gluten. But, it doesn't guarantee that a product is any healthier for kids.