In the late 1990’s, my grandmother who lived with my family was diagnosed with celiac disease. The experience of planning meals became mildly traumatic for all of us. My most vivid recollection that of is breakfast time: my grandmother pulling a heavy, spongey-looking, yellow loaf of bread out of the fridge and peeling apart two slices to toast and slather with jam to mask the (lack of) taste and awful sandy texture.
Fast forward ten years, and you could now throw a stone and hit someone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or who has tried a gluten-free diet for the sake of their health. Why have recent years seen a crazily rising prevalence of gluten intolerance in wealthy Western countries? I won’t address this question today – but rather why eating gluten-free has risen in popularity, and why that’s not a good thing.
Let’s begin with the basics. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and other whole grains. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system attacks the small intestine upon ingestion of gluten and blocks the absorption of nutrients from gluten-containing foods. Symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal bloating and pain, fatigue, tingling hands and feet, joint pain, and depression or anxiety. The process of diagnosing celiac disease is a terrible experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So why has eating like you have celiac disease become so popular?
1. We are more aware and accepting of dietary restrictions than we used to be.
In itself, this is a good thing. Vegetarian and allergen-free food options are now available almost everywhere. A plethora of (good!) gluten-free recipe websites can be found online. Food labelling has improved, with the FDA Food Allergen Labelling and Consumer Protection Act enacted in 2004 (1); this legislation has probably contributed to popular awareness of dietary restrictions.
2. Celebrity endorsement – the Gwyneth Paltrow effect
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to blame poor old Gwyneth for all this mess. On the other hand, she was perhaps the first to show us the health benefits of eating gluten-free, via on her GOOP website in a carefully constructed self-promotion exercise. Kim Kardashian, Jessica Alba, Victoria Beckham, and Miley Cyrus have all publicly touted the benefits of the diet. Miley has tweeted ‘Everyone should try no gluten for a week! The change in your skin, (physical) and mental health is amazing! U won’t go back!”. These statements are problematic, as a gluten-free diet is not good for you unless medically necessary.
3. The multi-billion dollar gluten-free food industry
This is the biggest and most powerful culprit. The food industry has capitalised on social trends in eating gluten-free, and in particular the widespread assumption that gluten-free equals healthy. This fallacy is shameful. Gluten free does not equal healthy, and it certainly doesn’t equal low carb. Peter Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University said,
The market for gluten-free products is exploding… Many people may just perceive that a gluten-free diet is healthier. Unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fibre (2).
What replaces the whole grain flour in gluten-free foods? Often, it’s corn flour, white rice flour, or potato flour. These are high GI grains that spike and then crash blood sugar levels, and they are low in protein and fibre. They have less nutritional value than whole grain flours. Remarkably, food companies have managed to sell products made with these ingredients under a health-food guise, resulting in a gluten-free food industry expected to produce $15 billion in annual sales by 2016 (3).
The food industry is making billions by selling nutritionally void gluten-free products to a public that mostly has no need for them.
Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance – estimated to be about 1% of the population – or if you suspect that you do, do yourself a favour and avoid gluten-free products.
1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-282, Title II). http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm106187.htm (accessed 23 August 2014).
2. Jaret P. The truth about gluten. http://www.webmd.com/diet/healthy-kitchen-11/truth-about-gluten (accessed 23 August 2014).
3. Strom, S. A big bet on gluten-free. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/business/food-industry-wagers-big-on-gluten-free.html (accessed 23 August 2014).