Over the years, more and more cases of celiac disease are known, with an exponential growth. According to experts, there may be two reasons for this. One, that due to environmental factors, the number of celiacs is increasing, and another, that diagnoses have improved and allow more cases to be detected. In addition, along with celiac disease, gluten also causes other disorders.
A research team has monitored gluten-free products for nine years to analyze whether they present deficiencies from the nutritional point of view or, on the contrary, if they are as valid as those provided with gluten and represent a better food option for the population general.
The Gluten 3S group of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Spain is accredited to grant the gluten-free product seal to producers. Over the past nine years, the group has led extensive research into these products and has conducted nutritional analyzes to examine 200 gluten-free products. The quality of the products has increased considerably during this time, and yet these products have not yet become equivalent to those containing gluten.
The increase in cases of celiac disease, and gluten intolerance in general, has reached public perception, which has created a problem, since many people consider that a gluten-free diet is healthier than one that contains gluten. And that mistaken belief can backfire.
«Certain attributes are attributed to the diet that in themselves are not related to it. The data shows that gluten-free products are not healthier”, according to Jonatan Miranda Gómez, pharmacist at the UPV/EHU and researcher at the Gluten 3S research group. This group is accredited, following the ISO standard, to grant the seal that guarantees that gluten-free products do not really have gluten.
Indeed, Miranda’s team has spent many years carrying out a nutritional analysis of gluten-free products. “In 2014 we published a pretty groundbreaking study,” says Miranda. In it, we compared 200 gluten-free foods with their gluten-containing equivalents. They are not nutritionally equivalent. Many of the gluten-free products contained more unsaturated lipids (or harmful fats) than the gluten-containing products, had lower fiber intake, and required salt and protein control. But the situation is constantly changing and the results of another study have just been published in the academic journal Foods.
Jonathan Miranda Gomez. (Photo: Nuria González / UPV/EHU)
nine years of evolution
The proportion of celiacs has not changed and continues to be approximately 1%. But, on the one hand, the population has increased and, on the other, sensitivities to gluten have emerged, with which, also considering this group, the problem affects 10% of the population. “The industry has been aware of this,” says Miranda. Therefore, it has developed more products, which has allowed the industry itself to do more research and take into account other components. Somehow, this societal drive and research teams have sparked an evolution in the industry. And the improvement has been remarkable.
A representative example is that of pasta. Gluten-free pasta is not made with wheat, since it contains gluten, but with corn. Precisely cornmeal has always been the main ingredient. This has not changed in the last nine years. However, whereas previously the second most important ingredient was rice flour, now the most common is millet. “This has positively influenced nutrition,” says Miranda. “To make pasta you have to extrude and millet allows extrusion using less lipids.” In addition, legislative initiatives in food matters have contributed, since the changes in recent years have encouraged a change in the ingredients of pasta.
In the cases of non-solid products, producers use other strategies. Beer is an example. In this case, instead of replacing gluten, it is broken by the addition of enzymes in the clarification process (separation of suspended particles from the liquid). “But this process has another limitation,” adds Miranda. It could happen that harmful molecules remain that are not detected in routine analysis. Members of the Celiac Association sometimes tell us that gluten-free beer makes them feel bad. Therefore, a new line of research has been opened to analyze the problems of these beers.
For Miranda it is clear that the issue is broad. “In recent years, studies have shown that other molecules can be harmful as well, and that even when following a strict gluten-free diet, these gluten-free products can cause discomfort. In addition, they want to add another approach to the investigation, since they also want to analyze the environmental aspect. “We want to know the environmental impact of gluten-free foods. They tend to have a greater impact than the rest, since, for example, it is necessary to import some ingredients from abroad. That impact should be reduced. For example, you have to study where to bring the millet from,” says Miranda.
The study is titled “Gluten-Free Products: Do We Need to Update Our Knowledge?” And it has been published in the academic journal Foods. (Source: UPV/EHU)