Is Gluten-Free Healthy?

That’s the question posed by a very interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal.The article is behind the Journal’s rather pesky pay wall, however its thesis is a fairly simple one, summarized in this paragraph here:

Many health experts say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free except for a small sliver of the population whose bodies can’t process the protein. Indeed, according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar. It is a point some food makers don’t dispute, saying they are simply responding to consumer demand without making health claims.

Exactly. It’s estimated that there are between two and three million celiac disease sufferers in the US. For these unfortunate souls a gluten-free diet is a must, and indeed many of today’s gluten-free products are a godsend both to them and their families. For the rest of us the benefits of a gluten-free diet are nebulous at best, non-existent — even detrimental — at worst. So how did we get where we are today: with gluten-free the biggest dietary craze since transfats bit the dust five years ago? The Journal sheds a little light on that as well:

Gluten-free foods began gaining wider currency as better diagnostic tests were developed for celiac disease, making more people aware that they had it and needed to adjust their diet. In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration proposed labeling rules defining how much gluten could be in products labeled gluten-free, amplifying interest further.

Some doctors began suggesting eliminating gluten from patients’ diets to address mysterious maladies. Celebrities began jumping on the bandwagon, touting it as a way to lose weight and boost energy. In the course of a few years, the mold was set: Today, gluten-free products can be found in every traditional supermarket and mass retailer, including specialty brands and established names like Tyson and General Mills Inc. There’s even gluten-free dog food. Global retail sales of products specifically formulated to be gluten-free have nearly doubled since 2007 to $2.1 billion last year, according to Euromonitor International.

Food companies? Making money producing products consumers want? Will no one do something about this outrage?

For food companies, the new categories offer a chance to tap into consumer excitement at a time when overall sales growth for packaged-food makers and restaurant chains is lackluster. The products they push in turn spur greater consumer interest in new food categories. Another benefit: Although they can cost more to produce, food companies are charging as much as double for some “better-for-you” products, maintaining profit margins similar to their traditional products, if not slightly higher, says retail consultancy Willard Bishop.

File this under duh. Food companies spend huge sums trying to stay on top of food trends, and then developing, producing and distributing niche products that appear to match consumer demands. The vast majority of the time these efforts to “push” trendy products on consumers fail — miserably. Though we shoppers barely notice it, some 20,000 new food products show up on store shelves every year. 80% of those fail outright. Many, many more go out of production in subsequent months and years as the fads that gave birth to them fade. It’s an expensive proposition indeed, which is why niche products — healthy or not — almost always cost more.

I write this not to try to gin up sympathy for food packagers, but rather to underscore where food crazes originate: with us. If the hive mind of American consumers — egged on by a few small-scale university studies, a couple of celebrity endorsements and maybe a book — decide that “blue” is the next big thing in food, I promise it won’t take long before the color of your Wheaties box changes (then changes again a year later when a competing study reveals that yellow is actually healthier for you as colors go). There’s little the folks at General Mills won’t do to help sell cereal.

When will all the craziness stop? Quite simply, when we stop being crazy. When we consumers decide for ourselves what makes a healthy diet, and then — barring sound advice to the contrary from qualified physicians we know and trust — live by the decisions we make. Rant over. On to the day!

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45 Responses to Is Gluten-Free Healthy?

  1. Bev says:

    Well said Joe, I couldn’t agree more. Bev

  2. John says:

    Lol,one of my favorite root/ginger beer brands touts itself as being gluten free on the label,I’ve even seen gluten free on ice cream. I know I might sound naive,but at what point would anyone THINK that gluten would be necessary in making soda or ice cream? :)

    • joepastry says:

      Oh you’re so right. The food world is full of health claims that mean nothing. Gluten-free bacon, zero trans fat apple juice…packaged food marketers will do just about anything to get your attention. I should know — I am one (at least some of the time). Maybe I should put some health claims like that on the blog…in big colored bursts: Sodium Free! No artificial colors! It might boost my readership…who knows?

      - Joe

      • Ka says:

        You may not think that gluten is necessary in making soda or ice cream, but both may contain gluten. Besides the obvious cookie dough, brownie, pretzel, etc. varieties of ice cream, even plain seemingly innocent ice cream may contain additives or ingredients such as barley malt which contains gluten. I am so glad that companies are being more honest with their labeling and noting all of the possible allergens contained within. I sincerely wish that more consumers would become more educated about the substances they’re consuming (because some of this stuff can hardly be called “food”). In my experience, most people on any of the trendy “diets” are generally clueless about nutrition and pretty much do whatever Dr. Oz or their favorite Kardashian is currently doing. I don’t eat certain foods because they make me ill. Just like people don’t want to be judged for what they eat, nobody wants to be judged for the things that they choose not to eat.

      • Frankly says:

        Had breakfast at a place that clearly labeled both the eggs and the bacon as gluten free! That to me indicates the depth of understanding by the people demanding more gluten free options.

      • Catherine says:

        It is undoubtedly true that packaging attempts to play every angle. However, I am continually surprised at all of the products that have some form of gluten in them. Corn and Rice Chex were not gluten-free until just a few years ago. And lots of foods have malted additives for flavor and color that are a no-go if you have celiac disease. Reading every single label gets very tedious after a few grocery trips, so if a food is labeled gluten-free in bright letters on the front, it saves you a lot of time as well as all of those mistakes made from assuming.

        Again, I get that the hype is annoying, but I can’t be too mad since this fad has made life so much better for some people. (People who will probably never again experience the awesome chewiness of a fresh bagel or the delicate texture of a perfect butter cake.)

        • joepastry says:

          True enough, Catherine. Gluten-containing binders and such are all over the place (though usually in very tiny amounts). Still I can appreciate the value of the shorthand “burst” on the front of the package. Saves having to do a deep-dive on the label. Great point!

          Thanks,

          - Joe

          • sjthespian says:

            It is also very possible that those products never had any gluten containing ingredients, but couldn’t be labeled gluten free because of the way they were produced. Our kitchen at work for example can’t label anything gluten free because they make their own pizza dough in the kitchen and don’t have the space or the equipment to isolate the flour dust.

          • joepastry says:

            Another very interesting point. I didn’t know that tolerances were so low for a “gluten-free” designation. What your describing sounds like the precautions some plants take to prevent peanut contamination. Who knew that it had come to this?

            Thanks for the info!

            - Joe

  3. Jeannie says:

    Most people who are on gluten free diets (who don’t have celiac disease) probably don’t even know why it’s supposedly “good” for them. Just going with the trend. Watch this funny Jimmy Kimmel clip asking random people on the diets if they know what gluten is.
    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AdJFE1sp4Fw

  4. Roger says:

    As an avid home baker, I’ve been loathe to dabble in the gluten free baking stuff… it just doesn’t seem right to me somehow. Of course, I have no issue with gluten at all….

    • joepastry says:

      I don’t do much of it but the subject does interest me from a science perspective. It’s a challenge to produce good baked anything without gluten, but it can be done! Thickeners play a big part in it, as a matter of fact. More on that today for sure. Cheerio,

      - Joe

  5. Catherine says:

    I am so grateful for the increase in available gluten-free foods. I have a dear friend who was diagnosed with celiac disease about 10 years ago. Back then, she was lucky to find rice pasta in the crunchiest of stores. Now her local grocer has sales on gluten-free rolls. Even though it’s a pain for her to tell every new acquaintance that a gluten-free diet will not necessarily lead to weight loss (she actually gained weight after her diagnosis because she could finally digest food), she’d rather live with today’s gluten-free fads than go back in time when people thought she was a hypochondriac for sending back salads with croutons.

    • joepastry says:

      I have no doubt at all that’s true, Catherine. I suffered from a digestive disorder for a couple of years in my twenties and it was the worst. If I were her I’d be glad too!

      Thanks for weighing in!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  6. Dr Rodney Ford says:

    It is not surprising that a baker (of gluten products) is strongly opposed to the gluten-free movement. I suggest reading the article “the spectrum of gluten related disorders” to learn about it. For every one celiac, there are at least another 10 people with gluten intolerance.
    http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1741-7015-10-13.pdf

    Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: The New Frontier of Gluten Related Disorders – http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/10/3839

    This is a real disease, occurring in real people, who have real symptoms with eating gluten.

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Dr. Rodney!

      Thanks for weighing in on this. As a baker I have no problem with gluten-free. As long as people are baking I’m happy — whatever it is! I’m also not claiming that celiac disease and related disorders aren’t real, as I said in the post. However I am most assuredly against the gluten free movement. “Movements” are the stuff of politics, popular culture and consumer behavior. Science is about hypothesis, evidence and proof. Medicine, about proper diagnosis and treatment. When science and medicine start taking on the characteristics of politics, culture and consumerism I become alarmed, as it means a lot of people are treating themselves for disorders they probably don’t have, to their financial, and possibly physical, detriment. As you’re a doctor I’m sure you and I are in agreement on that. If people suspect they have a problem they need to see a qualified physician about it and get real help, not jump aboard a bandwagon that may not offer them any actual relief. My point is nothing more than that.

      Thanks again for the comment! Cheers,

      - Joe

      • Dr Rodney Ford says:

        thanks
        unfortunately, most of the ‘qualified physicians’ that you refer to remain unaware of the huge problem of “gluten-related disorders”. You will be aware that the majority of people with celiac disease (more than 75%) remain undiagnosed because of the reluctance of physicians to do the tests. The research knowledge of gluten-illness has out-stripped physician knowledge. Hence the need for community action. You call this a “movement” – I call it a food revolution. Check out http://www.glutenZEROglobal.com for the research background to all of this.
        Thanks for listening – Cheers Dr Rodney Ford

        • joepastry says:

          I believe you were the one who called it a movement first, Dr. Rodney! ;)

          And while I’ll stick with the advice of my physician, I will have a look at the link. Regarding the revolution only time will tell on that one. Two or three years from now (when my bet is that popular culture will have moved on to something else) we can get back together and compare notes!

          Cheers and thanks again for your comments!

          - Joe

    • Bronwyn says:

      Latest research. People who claim to be sensitive to gluten show no gluten sensitivity in double blind tests. Symptoms more likely to be from something else. I myself suffer from gastrointestinal discomfort when I eat breads and suchlike, but I’m damned sure it isn’t the gluten. No gluten in rice, which is just as bad for my tummy.
      http://www.gastrojournal.org/article/S0016-5085(13)00702-6/abstract

  7. Izzy says:

    Food intolerance is not an exact science. There is no test to prove that one’s body is not processing wharever one’s body is not happy with unless it’s full on allergy. So the first thing they recommend is the process of food group elimination starting with diary and gluten. Thing is if you do have any food intolerance then those two eliminations are likely to help even if they are not the cause, mainly due to by the time your system is all messed up enough for you to notice then your system is likely to be sensitive to everything.

    There are some recent researches on those with IBS got better on gluten free which then lead to the development of FODMAP diet. So may be we just need more specialists that can help people to identify their ailments rather than internet self diagnostic. Most general practitioners don’t even know who they can refer you to. There are only so many doctors you can see without coming across as a hypochondriac.

    • joepastry says:

      Well said, Izzy.

      If someone has a real problem then they need treatment. If they have an allergy or digestive problem, diet can be a good place to start. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with those statements. There are a lot of people out there who suffer from generalized symptoms that defy easy diagnosis and I think these are a lot of the people who, for very understandable reasons, get caught up with dietary fads in hopes of finding relief. Some probably find it. Most, I suspect, do not. That’s where I have a problem with these trends, as you get a lot of boosters who present them as cure-alls when in the end most of the people who join them end up disappointed, usually poorer, and possibly even less healthy than they were to begin with. Popular and/or consumer culture is no place to look for a solution to a real medical problem (the doctor’s office is).

      Thanks a lot for the comment, Izzy!

      - Joe

  8. Beth says:

    It’s not just gluten, it’s grains.

    I really wish everyone would read “Wheat Belly” and understand the science behind “modern” wheat and its effects on us. I wrote a blog post about it if people are of a mind: http://bethkujawski.blogspot.com/2013/11/wheat-belly.html

    I’ve largely cut grains out of my diet (and nixed a baking-business plan because I can’t willingly profit from something I believe to be bad for us) as has my mom. When she does eat wheat, what she originally thought was arthritis returns.

    It’s the cause of a lot of our ills. People don’t realize the effects it has on us because they’re so used to feeling the way they feel.

    • joepastry says:

      That’s an opinion to which you are definitely entitled, Beth! I appreciate you weighing in on the subject.

      Cheers,

      - Joe

      • BrigittaV says:

        I used to think going gluten-free was a fad. Then last summer I tried an elimination diet — which is where you eliminate certain foods from your diet for a period of time and then gradually re-introduce them to see if they have an adverse effect on your body. I guess what convinced me is the other elements of the diet were pretty sensible: eat LOTS more vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and I could continue to eat all the meat I wanted. I eliminated sugar, caffeine, alcohol (which is also a sugar), dairy, and wheat. To my surprise, eliminating sugar caused my cravings for sweets to go completely away. But even more surprising was that eliminating wheat stopped my chronic joint pain. I was no longer stiff after sitting down for a spell. (Here I was thinking it was an inevitable result of aging!) Additionally, what I had always thought was an allergy that caused a constant runny nose and stuffed up sinuses, ended! Reintroducing wheat promptly brought these symptoms back again.

        Eliminating dairy, however, had no effect, so I continue to happily eat cheese and drink milk.

        I no longer have (silent) scorn for those who are going gluten free. I also don’t care if anyone mocks me or not. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have a gluten sensitivity. Whenever I eat bread or any wheat product, my symptoms return. I feel 1000% better without wheat in my diet, making it is worth the considerable hassle of trying to find bread-like substitutes.

        • joepastry says:

          Hey Briggita!

          There’s no question that there are people out there with gluten sensitivity. It sounds like you’re one of those fairly rare folks. Glad you got a handle on what was bothering you — and what a relief you can still eat butter! Whew!

          Cheers and thanks,

          - Joe

  9. Beth says:

    And just happened to see this, after I posted my last comment, speaking of Mom and her “arthritis”: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/grains-joint-pain-cardamom-and-the-cause-of-aging-muscle/

  10. Ellen in KY says:

    I am a lover of all things bread. If I was given a piece of cake or a piece of good whole grain bread, I’d choose the bread every time. I know a few, very few people who do have celiac disease, but I know way too many people who are gluten free because it’s trendy. There’s a woman at work who is on the paleo diet and she can be rather insufferable.

    • joepastry says:

      Eek, yes. There are indeed a lot of unusual diets out there these days. If that’s your thing, more power to you I say — but maybe let the rest of us eat our chocolate chip cookies in peace! ;)

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  11. Tereza says:

    Personally I welcome the effects of the gluten-free ‘movement’ though I have no trace of any sort of food intolerance. What I welcome are more different grains, more exotic ingredients, more new flavors on my small-town supermarket shelves. Piggly Wiggly has six feet of Bob’s Red Mill on display and I have millet, brown rice, oats, sorghum, buckwheat, and flax to savor!

    • joepastry says:

      And you have every right to do that, Tereza! These sorts of events definitely do inspire a lot of new products. I too have noticed that the Bob’s Red Mill section at the local Kroger has gotten bigger lately. I use most what’s there at one time or another. I think it’s a terrific brand. Cheerio,

      - Joe

  12. Susan says:

    My late Mother-in-law went through the celiac diagnosis many years ago when she began experiencing digestive problems and rapidly losing a lot of weight . It was a time when testing for Celiac was said by her doctor to be an inexact science and difficult to prove. We all bought into the diagnosis and scurried to learn to bake gluten free. Living with her temporarily due to her illnesses, I noticed that many times when she consumed larger than normal amounts of dairy products her digestive symptoms were more troublesome. So, I experimented by substituting lactose free milk and cut down on recipes that were dairy rich. Turns out that by the elimination process, it was a more a lactose intolerance and not gluten at all. In confronting her doctor, he said that to impart the seriousness of eliminating wheat from a diet in an attempt to discover what process was causing the weight loss, telling a patient that a gluten intolerance was the culprit made the patient more likely to follow the his directive. Telling someone that they had a wheat allergy was often scoffed at since most had eaten wheat all their lives without incident and not take it seriously or they’d eat products containing wheat not knowing it was in processed food. But tell the same patient that the action of the gluten in “some grains” would disable their digestive system from absorbing all nutrients from everything they ate, made them comply more readily and carefully with his directive. Most of us just won’t do “NO” no matter what!

  13. Cath says:

    Having known people w/gluten-intolerance & celiac most of my life, I really enjoyed how much easier it is to find gf flours, etc. now. Baking is such a great way to show you care, & gf people were always so grateful for something special.
    GF labels on foods you’d never suspect had gluten in the first place used to make me laugh until I found out how many things–spice blends, say–can have “hidden” gluten. Between that & cross contamination, not much fun anymore for the casual baker during the holidays.
    Your info on thickeners (esp my ole buddy Xanthan gum) & meringues are an invaluable resource, as always.

  14. Phoebe says:

    My mom owns a bakery and the gluten-free trend is killing her business (just when we thought we were safe from the Atkins anti-carb crazies). I cannot bear people who buy into all this gluten “wheat belly” nonsense, genuine celiacs excepted, of course.

  15. Dani says:

    Even the prospective of me having to ever live without gluten gives rise to a sincere sympathy for people battling Celiac disease. And because a love of baking is in a way inseparable from sharing what you bake with others, I know it will make me very happy to make a Celiac soul happy by making something for them. As for the rest of the folks – being a wise consumer is neither free nor something companies owe anybody. And having a choice, a spoiled abundance of, can in fact do harm.

  16. Sandra says:

    As might be expected, there’s nothing new in food companies jumping on fad bandwagons. I can remember (MANY years ago) when 7-up started touting itself as caffeine-free. The fact that it had never contained caffeine was beside the point.

    • joepastry says:

      Ha! Exactly. But then I bet some consumers they focus-grouped didn’t know. The things you learn about what people think of your products, I tell you…

      - Joe

  17. joepastry says:

    I’ll write you offline, Frankly!

    - Joe

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