As American as gluten-free apple pie: Diagnosing the wellness industry


Glutenfree“Are you on a gluten-free diet?”

“Of course.”

“Ok, what is gluten?”

“Erm…I don’t know.”

We fell about laughing when we heard the story of a live broadcast from a crowded park in San Francisco, but it might easily have been recorded here in Washington, D.C.

go_ahead_its_gluten_free1Or anywhere in the US, where 30 per cent of adults are drawn to a gluten-free lifestyle.

With all its connotations of health. And slimness. And hunter-gatherer energy levels.

So much so that the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey identified gluten-free food as one of the top five food trends for 2014. Last year, American chains like P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen and Dunkin’ Donuts reportedly made shifts away from wheat.

Dr Sheila Crowe, who’s a member of Celiac Disease Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board, says it’s unclear if most gluten-free eaters need such foods or just want them because they’re trendy.

Only about 1 in 133 people or .75 per cent have celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune condition that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Barely .4 per cent of people have a doctor-diagnosed wheat allergy, according to a 2006 study, which can result in skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms when wheat is consumed. (Wheat contains gluten).

Eighteen million Americans have something that’s called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which may produce similar symptoms but is not very well understood.

And then there are people like the ones in the San Francisco broadcast who think it’s a generally good thing to go gluten-free. But there’s little evidence that going gluten-free means good health, says Dr Crowe. T’was well said, the gluten-free industry is making millions from Americans’ desperation to feel better.

(Tomorrow: Against the grains – What’s the science of the gluten-free, anti-carb diet?)

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac