Food fads are nothing new. We suffered through the fat-free 90s and then everything was low carb. Now, we’ve moved on to avoiding gluten.

Food fads are nothing new. We suffered through the fat-free 90s and then everything was low carb. Now, we’ve moved on to avoiding gluten.

Gluten is a complex protein found in wheat, barley and rye grains that gives bread that chewy, stretchy, springy texture. But ask the average person what gluten is and you are likely to get vague answers like these: “Gluten is unhealthy,” “Gluten makes you fat,” or “Gluten makes you sick.” Gluten is the latest public food enemy. It is blamed for irritable bowels, autoimmune disorders, bloating, autism, lethargy, weight gain, rashes…the list goes on and on.

True, some people are intolerant of or sensitive to gluten. Celiac disease is an autoimmune, genetic, lifelong disease that affects an estimated 1 out of 133 people, or about 1 percent of the population. Basically, people with Celiac disease have an abnormal immune reaction to gluten. When they ingest gluten, it causes damage to the intestinal mucosa that leads to complications, such as malabsorption, causing vitamin deficiencies, osteoporosis, infertility and neurologic symptoms.

Lifelong avoidance of gluten is the only known treatment for celiac disease. Celiac disease can occur at any age and it is thought that it may be triggered by physical or emotional trauma, especially later in life. True Celiac disease can be diagnosed and confirmed with testing and an endoscopic biopsy. But a new study from the Mayo Clinic reveals that, compared with the 1950s, celiac disease is four times more common today. There are many theories as to why the increase. Some scientists think that it may be due to more accurate diagnosis and testing, others attribute the rise to the abundance of processed wheat products with high gluten content now available. Still others think it may be due to a change in the wheat itself, in that new wheat varieties have been cross-bred to make them more durable and commercially viable.

Some people test negative for Celiac disease but experience symptoms when ingesting gluten. These people are deemed to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. There is no test to determine if you are gluten sensitive, but if you eliminate gluten and your symptoms improve then you probably are. It’s estimated that about 6 percent of the population are sensitive to gluten.

There are so many people embracing a gluten-free diet that a whole new industry has emerged throughout the last decade to capitalize on the manufacture and marketing of gluten-free foods. The gluten-free business is big money, with sales doubling to $23 billion during the past 4 years. General Mills alone has introduced more than 600 new gluten-free products in just the past few years. There are even new over-the-counter pills that supposedly contain enzymes to help digest gluten. These specialized products are often sold at a massive mark-up over “regular” products. America’s spending on gluten-free products increased 37 percent last year alone.

The rise in popularity of the gluten-free diet can partly be attributed to the desire of people wanting a simple solution to complex health problems.

But this doesn’t change the fact that more than half the consumers buying gluten-free products do not have Celiac disease and are not gluten sensitive. Following a gluten-free diet is a trendy thing to do. Celebrities endorse it, manufacturers promote it, books are written about it, and the Internet is a never-ending source of testimonials touting the benefits of going gluten-free, and the supposed scary consequences of eating gluten.

The gluten-free fad compares to the fat-free trend of the 90s. That diet also started with good intentions but simply led to an explosion of unhealthy (but fat free!) processed foods. Today, you can buy almost anything in a gluten-free form, even cosmetics, moisturizers and pet foods. Taking the gluten out of food means manufacturers have to replace it with something else for texture or taste. This leaves a lot of gluten-free foods with less fiber and protein and more sugar and sodium than the supposedly unhealthier, original version. Nutritionally, many gluten-free foods just aren’t that healthy. A gluten-free donut is still a donut with little nutritional value.

For the vast majority of Americans, there is no reason to avoid gluten. Gluten-free products do you no good if you are not gluten sensitive. If you really want to see if taking gluten out of your diet will make you feel better, you’d be better off eating naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, corn, oats, rice and quinoa, and avoid the highly processed gluten-free food substitutes. A trial of a gluten-free diet will do no harm but needs to last about six weeks to see if there are any improvements.


Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.