By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 08, 2015
© Martin Shields / Alamy

All that’s gluten-free is not gold according to recent research conducted at The George Institute for Global Health in Australia and published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

In the study, billed as the largest of its kind conducted on the island continent, researchers looked at 3,213 food products covering ten food categories, comparing the nutritional value of items that had gluten to those that claimed to be gluten-free. What they found was that, from a nutritional standpoint, the different between products was negligible. In some categories, like pasta, gluten-free products actually scored worse than normal items on a nutrient profiling scale. Gluten-free products also consistently had less protein in several core categories.

“There has been a tidal wave of gluten-free products coming onto the market in recent years, and many people have been caught in the wash as they search for a healthier diet,” said Dr. Jason Wu, the lead author of the study. “The foods can be significantly more expensive and are very trendy to eat, but we discovered a negligible difference when looking at their overall nutrition. Gluten-free products are necessary for people with celiac disease, but this information is important because of their broader use in the community.”

The study’s findings are aimed at those who gravitate towards gluten-free products because they think these items are healthier. “Many people need gluten-free food, but there is a growing group who are only trying it for its apparent healthiness,” says Dr. Wu.

Wu and his team researchers warn of falling into this health halo effect. “Fancy labels on gluten-free foods have the potential to be used as a marketing tactic, even on products that traditionally don’t have any gluten in them anyway,” he said. “Misinterpretation by consumers, especially of junk foods, that gluten-free means they are healthy is a real concern.”

The big takeaway: If you’re looking to eat smarter, the process probably doesn’t start with a gluten-free label.