Free from products

Supermarkets have promised to make their gluten-free products healthier, after research by The Grocer revealed some lines can be up to seven times higher in fat than ‘standard’ products.

Fat levels - and in some cases sugar levels - of many own-label gluten-free products are considerably higher than in products with gluten, the research found.

The difference is particularly pronounced in bread. An Asda Chosen By You free-from white loaf contains 12.7g of fat per 100g - seven times the 1.9g of fat per 100g of the ‘standard’ equivalent. A comparable gluten-free loaf at Tesco has three times the amount of fat per 100g compared with a standard loaf, while Sainsbury’s is four times higher. Big discrepancies were also found in ready meals. A 400g Sainsbury’s free-from beef lasagne, for example, contains 7.2g of fat per 100g - 50% more than the supermarket’s standard frozen lasagne; it also has one-and-a-half times as much sugar. Comparable gluten-free products from Asda and Tesco contain 12% and 8%, respectively, more fat than the standard versions.

There are technical reasons for the higher fat and sugar levels in some cases, with experts saying gluten-free recipes sometimes contain more fat or sugar to improve taste or texture. But nutritionists warned consumers often believed free-from options were healthier than standard versions, and supermarkets needed to do more to tackle the disparities in their own-label lines.

“We want them to look at what more can be done to bring down fat and sugar levels in gluten-free products,” said Coeliac UK CEO Sarah Sleet. “It’s unfair that so many people have to use alternatives loaded with extra fat.”

Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda all stressed they were committed to making their gluten-free products healthier. A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman said the retailer had been working hard on bringing free-from products “more in line with their standard equivalents, ensuring we offer a choice of healthier options”. A reformulated range would begin hitting shelves “from the end of May”.

Tesco said it was working on bringing down fat levels in its gluten-free bread, adding sugar was already lower than in its conventional loaf. “We continually work to improve the nutritional value of our free-from range without compromising on taste or quality,” a spokesman added. “We ensure all products are clearly labelled with nutritional information so that customers can make informed choices about what to buy.”

Meanwhile, Asda said it was looking to see what could be done to reduce the fat levels in its gluten-free products without compromising on taste, having recently relaunched its range. “These products have been developed to meet the nutritional value of their ‘standard’ equivalent as much as possible,” said a spokeswoman. “As part of this relaunch, we are currently looking at the nutritionals of existing free-from products.”

Dr Glenys Jones, a nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Association for Nutrition, warned consumers without gluten intolerance should steer clear of the calorie-laden products.

“Sometimes there will be a technical barrier involved in gluten-free products,” she said. “These products are using fat and sugar to replace gluten both for taste reasons and in some cases, such as bread, where gluten provides elasticity in the products,” she said.

“However, the sort of figures The Grocer has found shows it’s just a myth that gluten-free diets are healthier. In many cases they are much higher in fat and certainly are going to be far more calorific. They are certainly not suitable for people looking to lose weight.”