Gluten-free "healthy" snacks are packed full of fat and sugar and often contain as many calories as a chocolate bar, new research has found.
The revelation comes after it emerged that one in six people in Northern Ireland buys gluten-free foods, despite 92% of those surveyed not being diagnosed with coeliac disease or a gluten-related disorder.
An investigation by Safefood also found that although almost one in seven people considers a gluten-free diet a healthy way to lose weight, 75% of gluten-free snack foods were high in fat, while 69% were high in sugar.
A new report launched yesterday by the all-Ireland food safety organisation identified a number of misconceptions of the health benefits of gluten-free products.
It emerged that 17% of people believe gluten-free products are lower in fat than foods that contain gluten, a further 17% think they contain less sugar, while some people cut gluten from their daily diet in an attempt to improve their health.
Joana Da Silva, a dietician with Safefood, said over 90% of consumers buying the products "have no medical reason to avoid gluten in their diet".
"For those people who have a diagnosis of coeliac disease or those with a gluten-related disorder, avoiding gluten in their daily diet is an absolute must," she said.
"There is, however, no consistent evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve your health if you aren't sensitive to gluten.
"We are concerned that a majority of gluten-free snack products have an unhealthy nutritional profile for everyone, whether or not they have a gluten-related disorder. Many of the gluten-free snacks we surveyed are high in fat and sugar like other treat foods."
She added: "Snacking on foods such as fruit and vegetables, unsalted plain nuts and gluten-free rice cakes and cheese, are healthier options for us all."
Safefood's research included an analysis of the nutritional content of 67 gluten-free snack foods, including nut products and savoury snacks, cereal and baked products, and confectionery.
The results found that 75% of all gluten-free snack products were high in fat and 69% were high in sugar, with calorie levels similar to a standard chocolate bar.
An Eat Natural Protein Packed Crunchy Nut Bar with peanuts and chocolate (45g), which costs 85p, contains 510 calories and 30.5g fat per 100g, for example, while a Meridian Peanut and Cocoa bar (40g), costing £1.15, has 467 calories and 26.8g fat per 100g.
By contrast, a Snickers bar (48g), priced around 60p in a supermarket, contains 488 calories and 24g fat per 100g.
Industry estimates suggest that the gluten-free food market in the UK was worth £438 million in 2016, up 36% on the previous year.
Gluten-free food products are promoted by media personalities and sports stars as part of a trend for 'clean label', including 'free-from', food products.
Ms Da Silva said gluten-free food, like high-protein food, is currently on trend and therefore "big business".
"In the case of gluten-free snacks, you could end up purchasing snack foods with lots of added fat and sugar which are of no added benefit to your health," she added.