Goodbye Gluten?

goodbye glutan2Raise your hand if you deliberately avoid food items that contain traces of peanuts despite you not having any kind of allergy. I suspect that there are few to none of you raising your hand.  How many  of  you purchase gluten-free foods although you do not suffer from Celiac disease or have a known intolerance to gluten?  According to a survey conducted by the NPD Group nearly one third of us are trying to avoid gluten, although recent statistics reveal approximately only 1 percent of Americans are believed to have Celiac disease.  It’s no secret that the term “gluten-free” has been sweeping the nation, attracting herds of consumers.  Increasing amounts of us are wearing our “gluten-free” badges under the assumption that we’re improving our health.

Those same people have vilified gluten and pledge to forever uphold it’s absence from their dietary regime.  Gluten-free products are offered in nearly every grocery store and are considerably more expensive, but do they actually provide any health benefits?

Gluten is a protein composite found in food made from wheat and related grains (i.e. rye and barley). It essentially serves as the glue in the grain, assisting in making the dough rise and adding a chewy texture. Those who suffer from Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance avoid gluten because of uncomfortable to painful symptoms such as abdominal distress and or fatigue. Even when small traces of gluten are consumed, an abnormal immune response can damage the lining of the small intestine preventing important nutrients from being absorbed. This accounts for the one percent of people purchasing gluten-free products, but what about the remaining third. Typically in food marketing when there is the removal of certain components in a food product (“no preservatives” ,”less sugar”, “no saturated fat”), it implies that they have removed the “bad stuff”. We have begun  to see “gluten-free” labeling everywhere and again we’re conditioned to associate this branding with having removed the “bad stuff”, gluten.

Gluten-free falls under the umbrella of “wellness” products.  We believe that our health is improved when choosing to avoid gluten.  We feel gratified in being proactive, but without the pressure of needing demonstrable results.  If someone is “counting calories” there is an expectation that they should then be losing weight. Whereas if someone is “gluten-free”, they can feel healthier even if there is no quantifiable difference.  We’re not to blame for assuming there must be proven logic behind this “goodbye gluten” trend.  When everyone appears to be raving about the upside, it’s no wonder we’re influenced into believing it actually does benefit all of us.  I found myself compelled to research this trend, finding no real evidence to support this claim.  I even asked my GP his opinion regarding a gluten-free lifestyle.  He asked me, “Well, do you experience discomfort after gluten consumption?”  When I admitted that I didn’t,  he assured me that gluten-free just wasn’t in the cards for me.  Truth be told I found myself feeling slightly disappointed- I too longed to live a life free of gluten. Even when facing the facts, it was difficult for me to absorb this truth because it was contrary to what the mainstream media and my friends were preaching.  However, all the facts led to the same conclusion: there is no benefit to following this trend for gluten-tolerant folks like myself.  The only difference is that the sticky component holding the dough together is replaced with an alternate sticky substance.  A gluten free muffin is still a muffin.   It will still have the same 330 calories, 13 grams of fat, 39 grams of carbohydrates and 30 grams of sugar….minus the gluten.  So why all the fuss? It’s simple, we love to believe there are health advantages and food companies love to capitalize on this belief.

People are paying a premium to avoid gluten whether they are medically affected or not.  Producing gluten-free items is more expensive because manufacturers have to come up with alternatives that will give the finished product the same texture. A study conducted by the Dalhousie University Medical School, Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition compared the cost of 56 gluten-free foods to the alternative gluten-containing food at two large grocery chains. The study revealed that the gluten- free items were a shocking 242% more expensive than gluten containing foods! (gasp now) How can companies justify such a highly inflated cost for this product? Because there is great consumer demand. Let’s take a step out of this gluten-free bubble and reconsider the belief “gluten equals unhealthy” and replace it with “what gluten is in, can be unhealthy”.  Over consumption of any food be it gluten or gluten-free, will lead to a gain in weight. Removing gluten just aids in the digestion of these foods for those who have an intolerance, however it does not confer any health advantage.  Let’s refocus on the real contributing factors to our health: sugar, saturated fats, serving sizes, and artificial additives. Try this self- assessment: Do l truly feel better after consuming gluten-free foods? If you answer yes, then ask yourself whether you feel 242% better.