Gluten-free diets are all the rage these days, touted by countless celebrities as a solution for weight loss and promoted by pundits for its supposed health benefits. Restaurants are receiving two or three requests daily for this special need and marketers are declaring it one of the biggest food trend of recent years. Whether a food contains gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – used to matter only to the relatively small population that suffered from celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten in the small intestine that causes damage to the gut wall if not diagnosed. While the number diagnosed with that disorder has steadily risen in the past decade, the demand for gluten-free has gotten so crazy that companies are throwing the trendy label on products like shampoos that never had any gluten in the first place. How to separate fad from fiction?
It can’t be denied that some people have a need for gluten-free products. Rates of celiac disease in western countries have nearly doubled in the last 25 years to current levels of 3 million in the United States and 330,000 in Canada, though about two thirds are undiagnosed. The disease tends to be hereditary with symptoms including nausea and diarrhea. Nobody knows why the disease is increasing but it is popularly believed that wheat breeding has led to production of wheat varieties containing higher levels of gluten. While studies conclude that levels have actually changed little since the 1920s, overall gluten consumption has increased with food additives made from wheat flour being added to various processed foods to improve characteristics like texture. Overall wheat flour consumption has increased 25% since 1970.
While those with celiac disease may welcome the growing awareness and food alternatives that celebrity endorsement and industry trend-hopping bring, surveys show the vast majority of gluten-free consumers believe the products are somehow healthier. That perception may be peaking with the proliferation of pharmaceutical quality assurance studies stating “there is no evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet has any significant benefits in the general population.” There are a number of potential health benefits associated with gluten, such as improved blood pressure and immune function, that those following the diet without necessity could be missing. After all, people have been eating wheat, rye and barley for thousands of years. Gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier and may contain just as many calories.
Still, any growing awareness to what’s on the label must be a good thing and consumer trends towards healthier lifestyles are contributing to the popularity of lactose-free and vegan diets. There appears to be a genuine gluten sensitivity among some portion of the public but experts caution that gluten-free is not necessarily a weight-loss program and should be supplemented with sufficient fiber such as flax seeds to ensure optimal health. A food safety course is a good way to understand differing dietary needs beyond the hype.