Three quarters of gluten-free snacks are saltier than conventional alternatives, research has found, leading to warnings that health-conscious shoppers are being misled.
Some gluten-free snacks have five times as much salt as alternatives and some are getting saltier, yet only a third are clearly labelled with traffic-light warnings, according to a study by health campaigners.
Shoppers have been urged not to assume that “gluten-free” labels are the sign of a healthy product, as clever packaging is giving such foods an aura they may not deserve.
About one in 100 people has coeliac disease, which means they cannot eat gluten without causing harmful digestive inflammation.
However, the popularity of gluten-free products has soared thanks to celebrity backing for “clean eating”, despite little evidence that gluten is risky for non-coeliacs. More than a million Britons now say they cut out gluten entirely and “free from” products have proliferated.
A comprehensive survey of 106 gluten-free products sold in supermarkets found that 35 per cent were classed as high in salt as they contained more than 1.5g of salt per 100g.
When Consensus Action on Salt and Health compared the products to a randomly chosen equivalent that contained gluten, 74 per cent of gluten-free crackers, crisps, popcorn and snacks turned out to be saltier.
Schär gluten-free pretzels had 3g of salt per 100g, twice the salt of Sainsbury’s salted pretzels. Schär said it had recently increased the salt in the product by 30 per cent to increase the size and crunchiness of crystals.
Sarah Alderton of Queen Mary University of London, who carried out the research, said: “There seems to be this perception that it makes people feel good and gluten-free is healthier but when it comes to salt that’s not necessarily the case.”
Only a third of gluten-free products had the colour-coded labelling that makes it easier for shoppers to check salt content, she found.
The research also found huge salt differences between similar gluten-free products. For example Mrs Crimble’s original cheese crackers contained 3.5g of salt per 100g compared with 0.7g for Rude Health multigrain crackers.
A spokeswoman for Mrs Crimble’s said: “We are always looking at our recipes with a view to finding ways to improve and reduce salt content.
“We have recently reduced the salt levels from 3.5g/100g to 3g/100g which is already on the artwork for our new rebrand and packaging.”
A spokeswoman for Schär said: “Our pretzels have the same salt content as comparable products in the gluten-free market and should be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”