Finding healthy gluten-free packaged foods has not gotten easier over time. Yes, there are more choices than ever labeled “gluten-free,” but many food manufacturers still rely on sugar and other junk ingredients to shore up the taste of these foods, especially those aimed at kids. Then they market the foods to parents who see a health halo around the words “gluten-free” and in many cases buy them even for children who could safely eat gluten.

Now, thanks to a first-of-its-kind study done at University of Calgary, we know just how unhealthy these foods are. It looked at 374 foods designed for children (typically by name or packaging) ranging from oatmeal to pasta to fruit snacks and compared the nutrient profiles of “regular” packaged foods to these gluten-free versions—both similar foods within the same category and, when they existed, branded foods made in regular and gluten-free versions. Criteria included sugar, salt, total fat, saturated fat and trans-fat content.

In essentially a “which is worse?” comparison, 97% of the “regular” products were deemed of poor nutritional quality…and so were 88% of the gluten-free ones.

Typically, the gluten-free products were lower in sodium, total fat and saturated fat than the similar regular foods, but they also contained less protein and more sugar (in some cases 50% more sugar) than comparable gluten-containing foods. Some items, notably gluten-free soups and pastas, tended to contain more saturated fat than their regular counterparts.

HOW TO MAKE HEALTHIER CHOICES

Because gluten is a source of protein, removing it from foods without replacing it with comparable ingredients often means missing out on nutrients. And to make matters worse, some of the unhealthy ingredients added instead, such as sugar, make foods taste better especially to kids, so they’ll eat more of these less nutritious alternatives. Since kids with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity sometimes have a hard time getting needed nutrients, relying on typical gluten-free packaged foods is unlikely to help with these deficits. Nor will eating gluten-free boost the diet quality of kids in general.

If there’s no diagnosis of celiac disease or a gluten intolerance or allergy, there’s really no need to go the gluten-free route. Even if you just feel better without gluten, that doesn’t mean it will make a positive difference for your child.

However, when you or your child needs to eat gluten-free, there are some smarter steps…

Reach for whole foods. This means building a diet around brightly colored fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. Rather than packaged snacks, choose apple slices and carrot sticks dipped in a nut or seed butter, rice cakes with hummus or mashed avocado, frozen grapes, raisins and other dried fruits—all naturally gluten-free. Including more whole foods in your family’s diet will make you all feel better.

When you must buy gluten-free packaged foods, read labels with a careful eye. In addition to avoiding the unhealthy trio of excess fat, sodium and sugar, choose foods with naturally gluten-free grain alternatives such as nutrient-rich amaranth, buckwheat, millet and quinoa in place of the three grains that contain gluten—wheat, barley and rye. Also look for better-quality substitute ingredients—for instance, sorghum and bean flours as opposed to tapioca starch or potato starch to provide taste, texture and nutrition.

Shop specialty stores for more ideas. Although many supermarkets now have sections devoted to gluten-free products, the staff there might not be as knowledgeable about the products they carry as proprietors and workers at health-food stores—they’re often knowledgeable about nutrition and food sensitivities and might be able to tell you about unfamiliar ingredients used in gluten-free packaged foods, for instance. You may want to ask whether any of them eat gluten-free and which products they prefer.