Gluten Free Food: Health Fad or Marketing Gimmick?

Gluten Free Food: Health Fad or Marketing Gimmick?

Take a walk through any supermarket in the U.S.and you may think all of America is allergic to gluten. You’ll see gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free pizza and even gluten-free ice cream.

It’s more than just a health fad, it’s also big business. Sales of gluten-free foods are expected to reach $5 billion by 2015, according to Packaged Facts, a food and beverage industry researcher.

Gluten-free products were once hard to find and available only from small companies. Now the largest food manufacturers in the world include gluten-free products as a significant part of their marketing.  For example, General Mills’ Chex cereals are now gluten-free and the company has a website dedicated to gluten-free products and menus. Anheuser-Busch offered the first gluten-free beer in 2006; now more than a dozen domestic and European gluten-free beers are available.

Last month, Frito-Lay announced it would put gluten-free labels on its Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos and Lay’s brand snacks – even though they were already gluten-free.

An internet search reveals more than 45,000 gluten-free products and more than 3,000 over-the-counter pharmacy products.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, Kamet, spelt, triticale, and to a smaller degree oats and rice. It helps dough rise, makes breads, muffins and rolls chewy, and adds to their flavor.  It also makes some people ill.  Ingesting gluten makes some people experience a host of reactions from bloating and gas to headaches, fatigue, stomach pain, depression, skin rashes and anemia.

Celiac Disease

People who experience symptoms like these may have celiac disease, duhring’s disease (a skin rash) or a wheat allergy, all of which are set off by gluten. These symptoms can vary from mild to severe

Only about one percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease or a wheat allergy. Another six percent (16 million Americans) are considered “gluten sensitive,” according to research published in the journal, BMC Medicine.

While gluten may cause a bit of discomfort for some people, it wreaks havoc in those with celiac disease. For them, gluten damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents nutrients from being absorbed.  While a cure has not yet been discovered, eating gluten-free foods allows people to heal from the damage gluten has caused. Studies have shown it takes two to five years for people with damage to their intestines to heal.

Some people may not even realize gluten is causing their health issues. They may go through life thinking poor digestion or other symptoms are “normal,” because they’ve been eating gluten all their lives. Studies have shown that 95 percent of the people who have celiac disease don’t know it.

Many Foods Not Properly Labeled

The good news is that these disorders are preventable by eating gluten-free foods.

The bad news is that many foods that contain gluten are not clearly labeled.  Foods such as ketchup and beer, for example, contain gluten but are almost never labeled as such.  Many processed foods contain gluten, but don’t include that information on their labels because gluten isn’t a main ingredient.

To add to this problem, gluten is not limited to foods.  Unknown to most people, lip balms, medications, nutritional supplements and vitamins may also contain gluten.  Several websites list gluten-free drug and vitamins.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if a food has less than 20 parts per million of gluten, it doesn’t have to include gluten on the label. However, if people eat many foods that contain tiny amounts of “unlabeled” gluten, they can consume a lot of gluten without realizing it.

For people who have celiac disease, or are highly sensitive to gluten, this can be make purchasing foods very difficult.  The gluten-free label helps.  So does avoiding highly processed foods and eating fresh, whole foods. Naturally gluten-free foods include plain milk, 100 percent fruit/vegetable juices, fruits, vegetables, butter, eggs, lentils, quinoa, peanuts, seeds, tree nuts, corn, fresh fish, shellfish, and honey.

Currently, the FDA has no official definition for the term “gluten-free,” but it is working on one. Last August the agency began accepting public comments on gluten-free food labeling.

“Before finalizing our gluten-free definition, we want up-to-date input from affected consumers, the food industry, and others to help assure that the label strikes the right balance,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods.

Authored by: Loralee Erickson