In the 1990’s we saw how the low-fat craze changed the way Americans eat. By 2001 a third of the American population was overweight. What we didn’t know then was that although the food was low-fat, the calories were still the same. The consumers saw the low-fat label and completely forgot that you can gain weight from other components besides fat.
The gluten-free trend is now being compared to the low-fat craze of the 90s. Although the gluten-free hype has somewhat leveled out today, we saw a 43% increase in the gluten-free market from 2011 to 2013. Now, the gluten-free market is worth billions of dollars and projected to increase every year. So why do people suddenly want gluten-free food? Is it really healthier than those naturally with gluten? What’s up with gluten?
Gluten is a protein that's naturally found mainly on grains like wheat, barley, and rye. In medical terms, gluten is an insoluble mixture of hundreds of distinct proteins. But it’s mainly made up of two different types of proteins: gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is responsible for bread’s ability to rise during baking and glutenin which gives the dough its elasticity. Gluten has been in our food for thousands of years. It’s mainly harmless unless you have Celiac disease, a condition that makes gluten dangerous when ingested, or gluten sensitivity.
Gluten is found on all wheat products such as bread, flour, and pasta. It’s also on baked goods like cakes, cookies, pastries, and doughnuts. It’s even on beverages like beer and wine coolers.
Gluten is bad for people with Non-celiac gluten sensitivity and worse for people with Celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects 1 in 100 people around the world. It’s where the ingestion of gluten can lead to the damage of the small intestine, specifically the villi. The villi are small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, and they promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body. People with celiac disease experience symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, gas, anemia, and growth issues. To properly get a diagnosis, a series of tests and interviews is required. Since people with celiac disease have higher levels of certain antibodies in their blood, a blood test is needed to measure levels of antibodies to gluten and a biopsy may follow to see if there is any damage to the intestine. A discussion about the patient’s medical history is essential since celiac disease tends to cluster in families.
People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity experience the same adverse reactions to gluten as those with celiac disease but without villi damage. This means people with NCGS have more legroom to experiment on which food they can and can’t eat. But unfortunately, the condition is harder to diagnose and can only be done by elimination. NCGS is only recognized after responding well to a gluten-free diet and repeatedly testing negative for celiac disease. Scientists are still baffled by the condition and there are still no confirmed factors that may cause NCGS.
Yes, gluten sensitivity is real, it does affect a lot of people, and it is dangerous. But what you might not know is that around 80% of the people going gluten-free don’t even have celiac disease nor are they gluten sensitive. And the food industry capitalizes on this turning the gluten-free market into a multi-billion dollar business.
A double-blind placebo-controlled challenge was conducted on twenty patients claiming to have NCGS. All patients went through four periods of double-blinded provocation, two with gluten and two with placebo in random order. Only four out of twenty patients correctly identified what period they received gluten, and they were then diagnosed with NCGS. Though all of the test subjects showed symptoms, what the four patients with actual NCGS experienced was more severe. The study showed that sixteen patients were not able to identify when they were given gluten indicating that gluten was not the cause of their symptoms.
Just like the low-fat craze and the recently no-carb diet fad, food companies make the most of it by stoking the fire. It’s suddenly all about weight loss and healthy living, and yet a lot of people don’t really know what it is or how it will affect them in the long run. They tend to think that if gluten is bad for some people, then maybe it will be healthier for everyone to avoid gluten altogether. These consumers, not those who have to eat a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, are the ones driving the market growth. Gluten-free products cost almost twice as much as their regular counterparts and people are still going crazy over it. This is where the gluten-free industry cashes in by promoting gluten-free products as healthier options than regular food, even when there is no hard evidence that going gluten-free has any health benefits. In fact, going gluten-free might be unhealthy if you don’t have any gluten intolerance at all.
The gluten-free industry is still growing, though not as much as in the mid-2010s, and is still expected to grow till the late 2020s. And now more restaurants are offering gluten-free options to their food, and gluten-free products in supermarkets are as common as low-fat milk. The quality of gluten-free foods in particular has increased over time as manufacturers improve the taste, texture, and ingredients in these products. But it is safe to go gluten-free even if you don’t need to? Is it really the healthier move?
The reason why people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity go gluten-free is out of necessity. For them, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But for regular non-celiac and non-sensitive, going gluten-free can actually be detrimental.
The most common issue with a gluten-free diet is fiber intake. Nutritional experts recommend that we get 25-38 grams of fiber every day, and most of us don’t even come close to those numbers. Poor daily intake of fiber can lead to constipation and other bowel problems. It may also make you not feel as full when eating, which can lead to excessive calorie intake and potential weight gain.
A gluten-free diet might mean avoiding whole grains. That can be especially problematic because whole grains are associated with several health benefits, especially for the heart. As part of a healthy diet, a high intake of whole grains has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and death from numerous causes, including infections and respiratory diseases.
It has become popular to voluntarily switch to a gluten-free diet because of an expectation to lose weight and be healthier. However, going gluten-free does not mean weight loss. When they take out gluten, they have to replace it with something else to provide consistency to flavor and texture. That's why gluten-free foods tend to have more fat, more sugar, and more salt than their regular counterparts in general. While there are definitely unhealthy foods that contain gluten, there are also healthy foods that give your body the nutrients it needs to function properly. Similar to the effects of lack of fiber, going gluten free without a legitimate cause can result in vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. In the US, many grains are fortified or enriched to contain large amounts of nutrients.
If you think you are sensitive to gluten, going gluten-free might prevent a proper diagnosis of celiac disease. Within just a few weeks of going gluten-free, any damage to the intestine or evidence of celiac disease might be gone. This prevents the blood test and biopsy from detecting the disease.
The gluten-free craze is a double-edged sword for people with celiac disease and NCGS. As food companies stuff the market with gluten-free products hoping to take advantage of the hype, more gluten-free options become available to them. But as the hype grows, the stigma comes with it. People who are medically diagnosed with celiac disease fear ordering a gluten-free meal or even simply asking for other gluten-free options. The diet trend is also leading to servers passing judgment or not taking necessary precautions when they ask for specific dietary requests. This is very dangerous to people with celiac disease as consuming gluten can cause serious health concerns and potentially lead to a medical emergency. It has even come to instances that people with the disease resort to just leaving the restaurant to avoid confrontation and possible humiliation.
The gluten-free diet is the only medicine people with celiac disease have, and they are unwillingly grouped with people who order a gluten-free meal with a gluten-filled beer. Because of the gluten-free diet trend, celiac disease is no longer taken seriously even though it’s a serious medical condition.
Gluten is a protein that people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity avoid because they need to. But for regular people, it’s harmless and not at all detrimental to health. If you are experiencing discomfort and intolerance to gluten, have yourself checked out and properly diagnosed by your doctor before diving into a gluten-free diet. There are a ton of other ways to being healthy. It’s safer to just eat unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables rather than filling up on gluten-free processed food.