Around 10,000 years ago, the beginning of agriculture allowed our species to move from a roaming existence to a settled one of relative safety and prosperity.
Growing wheat, rye, and barley turned out to be the key to transforming the human race. We got to stop following our food around and start growing it ourselves. That led to all kinds of developments and soon we were building cities and forging iron tools.
Civilization had begun.
It’s so ironic, then, that so many of us in the developed world have turned against these grains which made modern life possible. Gluten is now blamed for a whole range of complaints, from bloating to depression. WebMD tells us that people who report having a reaction to gluten also report headaches and fatigue, among other problems.
As a result, the gluten-free diet is one of the largest food trends ever to steamroll its way across our tables, our grocery stores, and lately, our restaurants. You can now even buy gluten free survival kits for the Apocalypse (because who’d want to go around feeling bloated and depressed after the s*&t hits the fan?).
Gluten-free is a movement
According to Food Navigator-USA, which serves up daily dosages of news on the food and beverage industry in North America, the market for gluten-free foods grew at an average rate of 28% from 2004 to 2009. That was the beginning of the “G-free” revolution and is hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down.
In fact, 2009 was the year at really took off. If you take a look at how many people searched on the term “gluten-free diet” over the past 10 years, you’ll see a sharp incline starting around then.
Not surprisingly, the food industry has followed suit. They’ve gladly developed and supplied those legions of the gluten-free with helpful products such as gluten-free cupcakes, spice cake, donuts, waffle mix…you name the flour-based food staple of your choice and there’s a gluten-free substitute just waiting to take its place.
Only don’t expect any bargains in this area. Gluten-free products cost more, as a rule. The National Institutes of Health even published a study on this. They studied 10 types of gluten-free foods based on wheat-based products and found that each and every one cost anywhere from 75% to an eye-popping 518% more!
Who’s buying all these expensive gluten-free foods, and why?
Gluten-free shoppers: who are they?
There are three totally unrelated health conditions which might drive people to shop for gluten-free products. Two of them are diagnosable, and there are tests for them. The third type of condition is harder to pin down.
Celiac disease: rare
There is a rare disease called Celiac disease that affects around .75% (that’s less than one percent) of people in the world, as reported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. There are about 2 million people in the US with the disease, which is a genetic disorder.
Even if you’re a total failure at math, you can probably tell that 2 million people is nowhere near a large enough group to buy all the gluten-free products being churned out each day.
So who’s buying the billions and billions of dollars’ worth of gluten-free food?
Turns out there are two other groups of people who say they suffer side effects when they eat gluten. They are the wheat-allergic and the gluten-intolerant.
Wheat allergies: rare
People with allergies to wheat might account for some of the sales in gluten-free foods. But even this group is surprisingly minute, considering the blistering pace of growth in the gluten-free food industry. Studies from Canada, Japan, the US, and the UK report that true wheat allergy is extremely rare, at less than 1%.
That leaves the gluten-intolerant.
Gluten intolerance: huge
Researchers have good stats on the rates of Celiac disease in the world. They’ve also done a fairly good job at estimating rates of wheat allergy. The trouble with this third gluten issue people have is that it’s vaguely defined and largely self-reported.
We know that people are reporting ( at pretty alarming rates) negative side effects from eating gluten. Their fears of gluten are supported by the media, which lavishes attention on any celebrity who announces she’s going gluten free. The latest is Elisabeth Hasselbeck , whose “G-Free” lifestyle is covered extensively in the news.
And with all that Gwyneth Paltrow’s done for the gluten-free movement, they should give her an honorary degree in nutrition …or maybe in marketing.
A quote from the actress’s cookbook:
“every single nutritionist, doctor and health-conscious person I have ever come across … seems to concur that [gluten] is tough on the system and many of us are at best intolerant of it and at worst allergic to it,”
Gluten intolerance is simply defined as having problems when you eat gluten. Keep in mind, there’s a test for wheat allergies and there’s a test for celiac disease. There’s no test for gluten intolerance, so it’s mainly self-reported.
Gluten intolerance: what does the research say?
A 2011 study performed at Monash University in Victoria, Australia found that non-celiac gluten intolerance “may exist” but the researchers could not find any hard clues to prove it. In two studies, they studied 34 and 37 people who did not have celiac disease but who did have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and who reported bad reactions to wheat.
Only 8% of the participants had specific reactions to gluten and the researchers concluded that it was something else in the carbs that was producing their symptoms: Fodmaps. This is found in wheat, lactose, fructose, cabbage, soy milk, broccoli, soybeans, brussels sprouts, and polyols which are present in some fruit that has stones (avocados, cherries, peaches etc).
Suffice it to say, a majority of the people buying the billions in gluten-free products come from this third group, the self-proclaimed gluten intolerant. It could be said that they are exhibiting “food paranoia”, which is prevalent in Hollywood. Alternative Medicine practitioners fuel the movement by “diagnosing” gluten-intolerance when there’s no test for this condition, and it’s not yet been proven that it exists.
What a gluten-free diet looks like
We’ve been focused on who’s buying all these high-priced gluten-free products but now let’s turn our eye towards the diet itself. What does it mean to go gluten-free?
WebMD spells it out for us. Avoid these foods:
- malt vinegar
- triticale (a cross between barley and wheat )
Sounds simple, right? The problem is, wheat is found is so many foods most people aren’t even aware of. Here are some foods that normally contain wheat, surprisingly:
- communion wafers
- vegetables in sauce
- processed deli meat
- salad dressing
- soy sauce
- self-basting poultry
- some vitamins and medication
- malt flavoring
- modified food starch
The gluten-free diet, by default, is often a healthier diet
The gluten-free diet allows lean protein, vegetables, beans, eggs, nuts, dairy, and fruit. By default, a gluten-free diet is a healthy diet if you avoid the processed food products marketed at the gluten-free crowd. This may account for a large percentage of the “benefits” so many people report after adopting the gluten-free lifestyle.
Here’s what a gluten-free diet will do for you
If you have Celiac disease, you already know that cutting gluten from your diet allows you to control your symptoms and prevent complications of the disease. It means your small intestine can function free the from terrible, debilitating side effects of eating gluten. The tiniest hint of gluten in food sends people with Celiac disease into total gastrointestinal agony. Following a gluten-free diet is not an option: its required.
For the <1% of the population which has a wheat allergy, it means freedom from allergic reactions.
For the rest of the people following the gluten-free diet, there may be some benefits if they are gluten intolerant. However, these benefits may simply come from cutting down on the carbs that usually accompany food products with gluten in them.
However, they report that following the gluten-free diet has resulted in the following types of symptoms disappearing:
- joint pain
- abdominal pain
- foggy mind
- arm, leg, or finger numbness
You see, the gluten-free diet is a treatment for celiac disease. It was not developed to be a diet plan. In fact, some people end up gaining weight or suffering other diet-related problems.
Here are some problems with a gluten-free diet
- You’re giving up whole wheat. This is a major source of fiber in the American diet, which is sadly lacking in fiber. Fortified bread and cereals is also the way a significant number of us get our B vitamins. Gluten-free flours so far have not been produced in a fortified state.
- You’re probably adding sugar and fat. Gluten is what makes food taste good, in many cases. To make up for lack of taste, many gluten-free foods add sugar, sodium, or fat. Consumer Reports tells us that a blueberry muffin from Walmart had 340 calories, whereas its gluten-free counterpart from Whole Foods had 370 calories. What’s more, the gluten free version also had 5 more grams of sugar! They found similar differences in all kinds of comparisons of gluten-free vs regular foods.
- You’re giving up the beneficial properties of gluten that lower blood pressure. The Consumer Reports study also tells us that triglycerides benefit from gluten.
- You’re probably diminishing the healthy bacteria in your digestive system.
- You’re ingesting more arsenic. Rice is a common substitute in a gluten-free diet, and rice has been found to be a major source of arsenic from the soil. Consumer Reports also says, in that same article, that they tested gluten-free foods and found that about half of them contained rice flour or some form of rice. They found enough arsenic in these products to be measured. Some found “worrisome” levels of arsenic. Arsenic is a carcinogen.
- You’re not going to lose weight by avoiding gluten reports ABC News. If that’s your reason for going gluten-free, you’re mistaken.
- Finally, you’ll be spending a lot more on groceries.
The smart way to approach the gluten-free diet
So, while it’s pretty clear that much of the gluten-free crowd may not actually need to go gluten free, it’s still an undeniable food craze that hasn’t shown signs of petering out.
If you feel you must go gluten-free, stay away from the specially-packaged processed foods created especially for gluten-free people. Instead, shop the outer regions of your grocery store and assemble your gluten-free diet from whole foods. Minimize the rice products, take a multivitamin, and tell your doctor you’re following a gluten-free lifestyle. He or she should hear about any symptoms that may have caused you to believe you are gluten-intolerant because they may stem from some other health problem.
In other words, stay smart, eat smart, and live well.
Scott, Caroline. Health issues back continued gluten-free growth. Food Navigator USA. Retrieved 6/4/2015 from http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Suppliers2/Health-issues-back-continued-gluten-free-growth
Kam, Katherine. Going Gluten-Free What to know about celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and gluten-free diets. WebMD. Retrieved 6/4/2015 from http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/celiac-disease/features/gluten-intolerance-against-grain
Singh, J. and Whelan, K. Limited availability and higher cost of gluten-free foods.. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved on 6/4/2015 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21605198
Mayo Clinic staff. Nutrition and Healthy Eating. May Clinic. Retrieved on 6/4 2015 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/gluten-free-diet/art-20048530