Gluten-free eating has become synonymous with guilt-free eating, though that may not actually be the case.
A recent UF study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, looked to see if labeling an item gluten-free altered consumer perception of the food’s taste and nutrition.
In a one-day experiment at UF in February, 97 people ate cookies and chips, all gluten-free. Half were labeled "gluten-free"; the other half labeled "conventional."
Participants then rated each food on a nine-point scale for how much they liked the flavor and texture, according to Caroline Glagola Dunn, a 28-year-old UF food science and human nutrition Ph.D candidate and principal researcher.
"Consumers didn’t perceive nutrition differences between conventional and gluten-free products, which was interesting because when we did a survey at the end of the taste panel we found that 37 percent of our respondents said gluten-free products were healthier than their counterparts," Glagola Dunn said.
"So although they don’t think the products were individually nutritionally different than each other, they thought that gluten-free products were healthier."
Thirty-one percent believed gluten-free diets improve overall health, 35 percent believed they improve digestive health and 32 percent felt it would improve their diet.
A gluten-free diet is prescribed to those with celiac disease, a digestive and autoimmune disorder that affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population, damaging the lining of the small intestine when foods with gluten are eaten.
However, refined gluten-free foods, for the most part, are not enriched or fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, according to Janis Mena, a registered dietitian and nutritionist for UF’s Student Health Care Center.
Mena said she does not recommend pursuing a gluten-free diet unless it is medically necessary.
"People with celiac are valid, they really need to be gluten-free. I don’t know why anyone else would become gluten-free because people can and should enjoy bread in moderation," Mena said.
Meredith Krzys, a 21-year-old UF event management senior, said she gave up gluten for Lent a year and a half ago and hasn’t looked back since.
"I stuck with it because I felt good and I realized I didn’t need to eat the things I ate before. It promoted me to essentially a whole-foods plant-based diet, I wasn’t eating anything processed," Krzys said.
Katelyn Adamson, a 21-year-old UF mathematics senior who was diagnosed with celiac disease in February of 2013, said she doesn’t believe people need to become gluten-free to eat healthier.
"They have to put more in the processed foods to make them consistency wise the same, so most gluten-free foods have more fat or more calories," Adamson said. "In fact, you’re probably consuming more calories than you were before."
Adamson said she is worried that people aren’t educating themselves properly before undertaking this lifestyle change.
"No one really knows what gluten is. It’s kind of funny. Why are you avoiding something if you don’t even know what it is?" Adamson said.
"Do your research before you start on this huge lifestyle change where you don’t eat something that isn’t necessarily bad."
[A version of this story ran on page 7 on 8/7/2014 under the headline "Don’t be gullible for gluten-free"]