Had you been living on a remote tropical island for the past 10 years and just returned home, you’d be surprised by some of the changes on your local supermarket shelves. One of the hottest trends in the last few years is the growth in availability of gluten-free products.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. A small percentage of the population cannot properly digest gluten and must avoid it. Products labeled as gluten free assure these people they can eat without worry.
According to Nielsen, over $4 Billion worth of products claiming to be gluten-free were sold in the last 12 months, up 13% from a year before that. This is a market that virtually did not exist only a few years ago. The Wall Street Journal reports that 60 million people purchased at least one gluten free (GF) product in the past year.
This is great news for people who suffer from celiac disease or wheat allergies. In the past they had to go to specialty stores, prepare many foods from scratch, or just go on with a limited variety diet.
Here is the really interesting number – only 1% of the population has celiac disease. Why would everyone else be jumping on the GF bandwagon?
There are several possible answers:
1. Some people believe they have gluten sensitivity, a “lighter” form of celiac disease. Since both celiac and gluten sensitivity may appear at any point in life without warning, people may attribute a sudden change in bowel movements, weight loss/gain, and other symptoms as a sign they have gotten the “gluten bug”.
2. It is not a simple task to ascertain if you have gluten sensitivity. It requires a series of tests drawn out over time.
3. Some limited studies have shown that gluten free diets may help relieve the symptoms of autism and ADHD in children.
4. Last but not least – Marketing. When a trends starts to pick up, lots of money is invested making sure people will buy in. It seems to be working.
What’s the downside to all of this?
There are several issues with gluten free foods:
1. They are more expensive. If you don’t need GF products, why pay more?
2. In order to compensate for the culinary properties of gluten in a bread (chewiness, volume), alternative ingredients and additives are used. These make for some very highly processed food products by the time they hit the supermarket shelves, higher in fat, carbs, calories, and unwanted ingredients. That’s not to say all GF products are full of crap, far from it. But gluten-free does not guarantee a healthy, nutritious item.
What to do at the supermarket:
We don’t envy the people who have gluten issues. Whether you do or you don’t, if you’ve decided to purchase a gluten free product, read the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient lists.