Is gluten-free an option for healthy children?

Senior US paediatrician counsels against choosing a gluten-free diet for children who don’t need it


The gluten-free food industry is big business and becoming bigger all the time. In the last three years sales of gluten-free products have more than doubled globally and are set to be worth over $24 billion by the end of the decade.

This growth far outstrips the number of consumers who actually have no choice but to follow a gluten-free diet; those with coeliac disease or wheat allergies who represent around 1% of the adult population.

A combination of media coverage and marketing has made gluten-free products a ‘healthy’ option to standard processed foods using wheat, barley, rye, oats or any of their derivatives.

Many see it as way of avoiding the chemicals and additives that pervade modern food production and use gluten-free products to ‘cleanse’ their bodies of the ‘toxins’ they perceive to be part of the legacy of agrochemicals and intensive farming, particularly considering the growth and penetration of genetically modified crops.

Others think it is a way to avoid weight gain, particularly as the products most associated with gluten include bread, pasta, pizza, cakes, cereals and beer – all very much on the weight watchers’ blacklist.

The diet has also been the beneficiary of several celebrity endorsements with figures like Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas extolling its virtues online and in media interviews.

Strangely enough, despite its popularity, most people don’t even know what gluten is or why they are avoiding it. In fact when 1,500 gluten-free Americans were specifically asked why they had adopted the diet the majority answered ‘no reason’.

Gluten is actually a mixture of proteins, prolamins and glutelins, which is contained within the starch of grass-related grains. It is added to a number of food products to increase the protein content and provide elasticity, shape and texture.

Coeliac disease is an incurable autoimmune disease which makes the body’s immune system react to the gluten proteins with symptoms that can range from mild to severe including diarrhoea, nausea, mouth ulcers, hair loss and anaemia.

Coeliac UK estimates that nearly three quarters of sufferers go undiagnosed and may not even be on a gluten-free diet.

There is no treatment for the condition so coeliac sufferers have no choice but to seek alternatives to gluten in their diets. As with those who suffer from wheat or grain allergies, there is no way to ameliorate the effect.

For everyone else, according to Dr Norelle Reilly of New York’s Colombia University Medical Centre, there is no proven benefit whatsoever in removing gluten from the diet.

Writing in the Journal of Paediatrics she goes on to warn that many gluten-free products are actually higher in sugar and fat content with elevated calorie levels compared to their gluten alternatives.

For children particularly there is a danger that they miss out on the fortified vitamin content of many standard processed foods, such as cereals, where gluten free products are unfortified.

What is certainly true is that the gluten-free options don’t come cheap. Research by the Dalhousie University in Canada found that, on average, gluten-free products cost nearly two and a half times (242%) more than their gluten alternatives.

Nonetheless there are hundreds of blogs and wellness websites containing thousands of testimonials to the gluten-free lifestyle with many people believing that the change in their diet has had a generally beneficial effect.

Whether you believe it is a fad or a genuine benefit the real issue is to ensure that your diet, and especially your children’s diet, continues to include all the minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

The choice, as always, is yours. But make sure you know what you’re choosing,



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