Gluten Free: real threat or passing fad?

Fasting, paleo, vegan, South Beach, and the Mediterranean diet are all faddish diets that have become a part of our culture because of the believed health benefits that they possess. Here today and gone tomorrow, these strict diets are often popularized as quickly as they fade away. The gluten-free diet has become more available and recognized by the public in recent years. While celiac disease is a real thing, it seems people have other motivations as to why they decide to go gluten-free. Health aspects such as weight loss, energy gain, and healthy digestion come to mind when thinking about gluten-free, as well as the overall notion that it’s "better" for you. This begs the question, is the gluten-free diet a real thing backed up by science, or is it just another fad?

If you ask a person who has celiac disease 'What is gluten?', you expect that they will know the answer. However, if you ask a person who decides to partake on a gluten-free diet on a whim, you expect that they will have no clue what the confines of the diet are. They just believe that it will be better for them.

People with celiac disease are not able to properly digest gluten, and therefore it creates gastrointestinal issues. There are also people who claim to be gluten sensitive and that it causes them fatigue or some other ailment. Somewhere along the line a lot of bandwagoning ensued and within the last few years, a market arose.

We are in a culture of advertising and the belief that manufacturers know what is best for us. SMC Nutrition Professor Dona Richwine believes the best way to combat this is to keep yourself informed.

“We are seeing a lot of unsubstantiated information about how gluten is bad for us. Gluten is just a protein, it’s not bad for us,” Richwine says.

The belief that gluten is unhealthy has shown up in a similar way that GMO or meat has; however, this particular belief is unsupported by any scientific or medical evidence.

According to Richwine, when you eliminate gluten, you are removing a big part of a healthy diet. Gluten free options such as corn starch, potato starch, and garbanzo bean flour aren’t a healthy alternative; they are just used to mimic bread and don’t have the same nutritional value.

The problem seems to be that a lot of gluten-free alternatives tend to be packaged and processed, while many naturally gluten-free foods aren't. You can guess which one is more heavily promoted in the media.

Richwine says, “We should be concentrating on eating whole foods; packaged and processed (gluten-free or otherwise) are not healthy alternatives.”

A huge market has grown for the gluten-free diet. According to the Celiac Central website, nearly 15 to 25 percent of consumers report looking for gluten-free options. The market is expected to continue growing up to $6 billion in the United States by 2015. That is a huge market for alternative wheat thins and rice flour pasta.

Whether or not the alternatives are better for you, the market is there. There are lot of misinformed people, as there always is, that go with what is trending. Then you have celebrity endorsement only enforcing the misinformation spreading across media outlets.

As with any diet, there seems to be a larger discussion at hand about what’s in our food. Labels and advertising tend to curb any skepticism, though. GMO, and similarly wheat are under attack, while organic and sustainable are music to a health junkie’s ears. It’s something to think about, however, that food manufacturers and advertisers are trained to pick up on these trends in order to sell products to the masses.

When something is marketed to us as bad or unhealthy, we feel panic. Alternatively, when something is marketed to us as having all these health benefits, then we run to Whole Foods. We cling to whatever we think will provide us with the longest, healthiest life possible without taking a second thought.

Advertising is a tricky business, and labels are first and foremost designed to make us want to buy the product. Unless we can facilitate a more informed culture that is less gullible, we are just going to be taken for a ride by the next trend to come around.

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