01.The great gluten-free rip offCHOICE took a stroll through the supermarket aisles to check out the gluten-free products and we found many products are more expensive and less healthy....
Take a (price) hike
Gluten-free products often require extra ingredients to create a palatable texture or flavour, and those ingredients such as rice flour or almond meal may be more expensive than wheat flour. Different processing methods and facilities, lack of economies of scale, additional supply chain and distribution costs can also push up the costs. Sometimes, however, you’ll find almost identical products are more expensive simply because they’re grouped with other gluten-free products.
We found Fantastic Gluten Free Rice Crackers in the gluten-free section of the supermarket to be more expensive than the Fantastic Original Rice Crackers, which, while also gluten free, were located with the regular crackers.
Seven times healthier?
Macro Wholefoods Gluten Free Plain Flour is seven times more expensive than Homebrand Plain Flour, but has 62% less protein and 34% less fibre. Both products contain highly processed grains, but the gluten-free flour uses tapioca and maize starches, which tend to have a higher GI and don’t offer any health benefit over the regular flour.
The ‘health halo’ effect
Just like health claims such as “low fat” and “organic”, “gluten free” can be used on foods to create what’s known in marketing psychology as a “health halo”, where health claims on packaging encourage people to perceive a product as being healthier or better than other similar products. Research has found gluten-free products appeal to consumers who often perceive gluten free as being in the same space as “natural” or “healthier” foods, and manufacturers are creating products that pander to this perception.
San Remo, for example, has released a new “Slimmers Selection” range of pastas made from an Asian vegetable called konjac. It is not only gluten free but also fat free, dairy free, low carb, low kilojoule and has zero protein. It might be the perfect diet product, but when it comes to health, says Saxelby, it has almost no nutrients.
We also found the health halo effect alive and kicking in the potato chip section of the supermarket. Plain potato chips are generally gluten free – it’s the flavourings that can contain gluten. Macro Gluten Free Potato Chips,which also claim to be wheat free and with no added MSG, artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, will set you back $2.54 per 100g.
By comparison, a similar-size packed of Smiths Original Potato Chips are $1.82 per 100g and are also gluten- and wheat-free, with no added MSG, artificial colours or flavours.
Junk is still junk
Some people see the gluten-free diet as a way to help with weight loss. But losing kilos on a gluten-free diet won’t be due to cutting out the gluten protein – it’s likely to be a result of cutting out extra kilojoules by avoiding foods such as breads, biscuits and cakes. People who substitute gluten-free versions of processed foods may in fact put on weight because they can be be higher in kilojoules, fat and sugar than the original version.
With bakery items such as snack bars and bread, gluten adds elasticity and body. And extra fat is sometimes used in gluten-free foods to add moisture and texture, and extra
sugar is added for taste.
Macro Double Choc Muffins are not only more than five times as expensive as regular muffins, they’re also 150kJ higher per 100g and higher in saturated fat. Sugar is the main ingredient in these gluten-free muffins, as opposed to wheat flour for the Woolworths Select muffins.
The gluten revolution has even
led to labelling of products that
are naturally gluten free as “gluten free”.
This seems to be a case of opportunistic
marketing, designed to appeal to
gluten-conscious consumers wanting
to make a quick and easy decision, or
those who simply don’t understand
what gluten free really means and
where gluten is likely to be found.
For example, there is no gluten in
rice. Yet SunRice’s Low GI microwavable
white rice has a prominent “gluten free” tag. It’s double
the price of Woolworths Select rice, which, apart from having
a higher glycaemic index (GI), has almost identical ingredients.
We also discovered The Good Meal Gluten Free
Butter Chicken & Rice in the freezer section. But a quick survey of cook-in butter chicken sauces
and other similar ready meals found all these are
gluten free anyway. The meal isn’t any more
expensive than other similar products, but
again its gluten-free claim is a canny – and
somewhat deceptive – marketing strategy.