Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gluten-free foods rake in money despite no proof of being healthier

Going "gluten-free" has been the most popular, long-lasting fad diet in recent years.

Grocery shoppers are picking up gluten-free labeled products more frequently as the term sticks, hoping to lose weight, or at least lead a healthier lifestyle.

Yet, no evidence backs gluten-free products as a tool to accomplish either of these goals.

Gluten-free manufacturing companies continue to flourish as consumers follow a diet that actually serves a small population with a serious medical condition.

0.7 percent of Americans have celiac disease, avoid gluten out of necessity

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine if gluten is ingested.

The disease is a serious condition that often goes untreated.

Jane Jakubczak, registered dietitian, coordinator of nutrition services at the University of Maryland and nutrition specialist for the Washington Redskins, said that celiac disease can cause major problems for a person's digestive system.

Less than 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, and more than 80 percent of those people don't know they have it, according to a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Though the disease is rare, it can have harsh effects. says 2.5 million Americans go undiagnosed and risk long-term health conditions such as:
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Early onset osteoporosis or osteopenia
  • Infertility and miscarriage
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Central and peripheral nervous system disorders
  • Pancreatic insufficiency
  • Intestinal lymphomas and other GI cancers (malignancies)
  • Gall bladder malfunction
  • Neurological manifestations, including ataxia, epileptic seizures, dementia, migraine, neuropathy, myopathy and multifocal leukoencephalopathy

Trending fad diet creates wider variety of products, but makes celiac disease seem less critical

Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley.

Because of how prevalent wheat is in the American diet, it used to be hard to find products that adhered to the strict gluten-free diet those with celiac disease need to maintain.

Common foods that contain wheat, according to, include:
  • Pasta
  • Couscous
  • Bread
  • Flour tortillas
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Muffins
  • Pastries
  • Cereal
  • Crackers
  • Beer
  • Oats
  • Gravy
  • Dressings
  • Sauces

Now that 1.6 million Americans are on a gluten-free diet without having been diagnosed with celiac disease, grocery shopping has become much easier for those who actually have the condition.

Of gluten-free consumers that don't have celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten, 75 percent choose gluten-free foods because they believe they are healthier, despite lack of research to support this idea, Mintel, a market research company, reported.

With the money gluten-free products are making -- $10.5 billion last year, according to Mintel -- the list of gluten-free offering companies, national and local, continues to grow.

Glutenista, a blog dedicated to the gluten-free diet, has compiled a list of gluten-free food manufacturers, with more than 80 entries.

The downside to the gluten-free diet trending is that many people see it as a more "hip" way to eat low-carb, when it's actually a necessary diet for those with a serious condition, Jakubczak said.

A healthier option for those trying to lose weight is to learn how to incorporate carbs into a balanced diet rather than avoiding carbs altogether, Jakubczak said.

Mintel predicts gluten-free trend will gain popularity with time, Jakubczak disagrees

Despite Mintel's prediction of gluten-free products bringing in more than $15 billion in 2016, Jakubczak believes the fad diet won't last very long.

She believes the gluten-free diet has held onto its popularity because it's relatively easy to follow, comparing it to the more complicated Paleo, South Beach and Atkins Diets.

"We, as Americans, find it easier to just cut out certain things, and with the gluten-free diet, basically you're just cutting out gluten," Jakubczak said.

"There's a misconception that it's very, very healthy and you're automatically going to lose weight on it," Melinda Dennis, co-author of Real Life with Celiac Disease and nutrition coordinator of the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told WebMD.

"Not true. It's not necessarily healthy. It has to be done properly," Dennis told WebMD.

With the market suggesting success for the future of gluten-free, and nutritionists suggesting that the fad will drop off, those diagnosed with celiac disease cross their fingers.

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