Welcome to gluten-free: the latest food fad

Food fads are never good. Sensible culinary countries such as Italy, France and Spain seem immune to our tabloid-fed paranoias about what to eat. It’s boring. And mostly funded by companies with a vested interest in selling us the food in the first place. Doh.

One day you wake up and red meat will kill you. The next morning, organic food has been scraped off the supermarket floor and is back on top of the nutritional world. The following day, butter has been rescued from a coup carried out by the yellow processed gloop movement known as ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!’ and next week coffee is good for mental health or does it cause stress? Oh and watch out for a raw chocolate fad coming to a supermarket near you. Yawn.

I recently went on a residential writing course and when complimented on the quality of food on offer, the organiser’s brows knitted and he explained that in the last 5 – 10 years, his job had become almost impossible: “We get people who state they are gluten-free on the form and then rock up asking if they can have the cream tea when they arrive, it’s an absolute nightmare. We had a couple who for their wedding, stated they were gluten-free but as a treat, wanted a cheesecake for dessert.”

The worst thing about such flimsy fads is that the lives and livelihoods of other people such as farmers and independent producers are adversely affected every time. And the new fashion for gluten-free is no different. For a handful of people, coeliac disease, apparently affecting about 1 in 100 of us, is a serious condition in which the immune system mistakenly produces antibodies against gluten, eventually damaging the gut and leading to malnutrition.

What is happening on our supermarket shelves however, seems to have precious little to do with a genuine medical condition and more to do with self-elect gluten-freeism. A cynic might even go as far to say that gluten-free has opened the door to a range of products with higher sugar, less fibre and more importantly, a much bigger price tag. In the UK, according to the Food Standards Agency, the industry is thought to be worth £238 million and growing rapidly; in the US it is estimated at between $4 – $10bn. And the decision to opt for a gluten-free loaf can cost you three times as much as an ordinary one.

Some people genuinely do claim to feel better, more alert and less bloated once they have gone gluten-free. But the very concept that gluten is the bad guy may be a mistaken one and cutting wheat out of your diet is not necessarily a healthier option. Of course it’s common sense that giving up cakes, biscuits, cheap bread and beer is going to make you feel better, but is it actually the gluten in these products that is causing such adverse symptoms? Possibly not.

Linda Geddes’ Should You Eat Wheat? The Great Gluten Debate in The New Scientist explores the idea that those who think they are gluten intolerant are actually reacting to a set of sugars called FODMAPS which are, “poorly absorbed in the small intestine and so instead tend to be eaten by bacteria…causing an abundance of gas.” And FODMAPS are also widely present in fruit, veg (especially onions) and dairy.

Furthermore, two bestsellers on the topic, Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, make some fairly preposterous claims. Eating too much wheat is apparently the cause of the obesity and diabetes crisis in the US; carbohydrates in grains such as wheat are supposedly a leading cause in conditions such as dementia, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Oh and wait for it: wheat is fattening and addictive. At this point, Satan looks like the good guy. Wheat: go to hell.

But before we skip aboard the next faddy bandwagon, what about the fact that cooked potatoes contain more GI than wheat products? Could the Chorleywood process which forces bread to rise more quickly using twice as much yeast, chemicals and a lot more sugar be more to blame for bloating than gluten? And if you cut out gluten and experience weight loss, might that be more to do with you eating less food (particularly unhealthy options such as cakes and biscuits) than not eating gluten? And is substituting a high-fibre product such as a wholegrain loaf for a highly processed gluten-free alternative really healthier?

While a serious gluten intolerance needs medical attention, self-elect gluten-freeism does not. There is a vast difference between a healthy diet and an unhealthy one. And most of the time, that is based on common sense and not the demonisation of two tiny proteins or the augmentation of a billion dollar food industry based on pseudo-science.

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2 thoughts on “Welcome to gluten-free: the latest food fad

  1. Jane

    Totally agree Rachel. It’s a bit worrying when people self-diagnose or blindly follow a trend. We had to try gluten-free for my daughter as part of an elimination diet – luckily it didn’t seem to make a difference to her ulcers and we’re back to normal food. It was a painful experience!


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