Gluten-Free – Vital for Celiac Disease, a Boon to Marketers

December 9, 2014 in Food Economics, Foodland, Health Claims, Nutritionism, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

Do you sometimes wonder if we Americans need some sort of food villain?  Dietary fat…. remember anything with fat was bad (1990’s)?  Then carbs, that never was a very clear message – no differentiation between simple carbs and complex carbs, but the message was that protein is the miracle food and fat is a wonderful accompaniment (beginning about the year 2000 – protein got its second big ride). For a nutritionist/dietitian it’s a little tiresome. It never seemed too difficult to understand that a balance of foods provides a balance of nutrients. The nutrients in different types of food accomplish different things. Now the gluten-free fad continues to not only hang on, but to build. So many people, even some in my family are beginning to embrace gluten-free. The promise of losing weight is a big driver, but it is a false promise for most (more about that below).

Certainly, there are tremendous reasons, for all the gluten-free hype. The biggest that I can identify is that the food processors have discovered that “gluten-free” is a financial bonanza. If you have a business (food products) and you can hike up your price about double, why wouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity? Actually, you’d be foolish if you didn’t. The fact that so many have jumped on the bandwagon is essentially responsible for driving up the prices. I’ve only had one economics course in college; but like anyone who has, you certainly don’t forget supply and demand. When demand increases (and it makes absolutely no difference why the demand is increasing), prices almost always rise.

If you have access to Consumer Reports, don’t miss the January 2015 issue; if you don’t have access, you may be able to read a copy in your local library. The cover story of the January 2015 issue is titled: The Truth About Gluten. The cover is very catchy, showing a gluten-free half blueberry muffin with ‘usually more calories’ and ‘costs more’ signs next to it; the other half is a regular blueberry muffin with ‘often less sugar’ and ‘less sodium in most cases’ signs. It catches the reader’s eye quickly. If you flip open the cover, you are easily directed to the pages for their two articles The Risks of Going Gluten-Free and The Arsenic Connection (switching from gluten-containing grains to rice gives you a much greater exposure to arsenic).

Now before I say more on this subject, let me be clear. There are serious, very serious concerns for the 0.7 of 1 percent of Americans (1 out of 141) who have celiac disease. Some other small percentage may have a much lesser but real gluten sensitivity. At the moment this article was being written, the US Census population clock estimated 319,394,490 people in the USA.  Out of this, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness “as many as 18 million” – (5.6% of the population) may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  Total these and we get 6.3% leaving the other 93.7% to decide for themselves whether to jump on the gluten free bandwagon or not.

Having said that, there are some very good reasons for the 93.7% of Americans who don’t have either celiac disease or non-celiac gluten-sensitivity to understand the information in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports. I’ve written about gluten-free before, but Consumer Reports has done an extensive and excellent review of the issue and have written about the realities behind the labels. The following are the six issues that they include in their article regarding The Risks of Going Gluten-Free:

  1. Their first issue is about the actual nutrition of gluten-free products compared with regular products from wheat, rye and barley. You may want to review the concept of nutritionism while you wait to get a copy of the Consumer Reports issue. Part of the problem with gluten-free products comes from the fact that wheat, rye and barley all have fairly strong flavors and textures. So true to so many food processing tricks; often to make up for taking tasty traditional ingredients out, extra fat, sugar or sodium are added to compensate. Seriously, do you really want more fat, sugar or sodium in your food? The article gives some good nutritional reasons to seriously consider not giving up gluten-containing foods just because it is the current fad. Do you remember my article Sugar Train Wreck? My favorite reference is to a food processor that discusses the health benefits of gluten-free Twinkies. OK, so maybe my sense of humor is a bit twisted.
  2. Arsenic exposure – Ouch!  About half of the gluten-free products are made with rice – many have worrisome levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen. The article illustrates how easy it is for someone following a gluten-free diet to get close to 10 times the amount of inorganic arsenic. Consumer Reports has written an additional article regarding this issue. If you use gluten-free processed foods or serve rice at many meals, don’t miss Consumer Reports terrific list of Gluten-Free Foods (With No Rice!) That Passed Our Taste Test on page 40.
  3. More than a third of Americans think that going gluten-free will help them slim down. That can be the case, if they replace bread and pasta with vegetables or a high fiber whole grain like quinoa. Changing to a high fiber food can facilitate weight loss by improving satiety. But that is not necessarily what happens, nor is gluten free the best diet to use for it to happen. Usually with a true celiac disease individual, they gain weight when they go gluten-free, because the damage to the microvilli of the small intestine heal when the gluten is eliminated and then they can digest and gain weight.
  4. A big issue to consider for some is that you’ll pay more. Consumer Reports has even identified a reason for the higher prices. They say that the manufacturers incur costs to meet certification and labeling regulations. This is a perfect excuse to raise prices even higher. For whatever reason, the fact is that gluten-free costs more. Do you notice that gluten-free is even written on the packaging of products that have nothing to do with gluten? I recently purchased a package of frozen berries; so glad that they were gluten-free! This example is proof that the berry marketers are attempting to get in on a fad, and showing their contempt for the intelligence of consumers at the same time. Berries never have been and never will be a source of gluten. Many naturally gluten free foods are adding gluten-free to their labels to hitch a ride on the bandwagon.
  5. Consumer Reports fifth issue to consider is that you may be missing a real medical problem by giving in to all the hype and advertizing, and self-diagnosing that you’re gluten intolerant.
  6. And finally, they address the fact that about 5 percent of products labeled ‘gluten-free,’ including some that were certified gluten-free, didn’t meet the FDA’s limit of gluten. Wow!  You pay the high price and may still be getting gluten. That’s really dangerous (I mean life threatening here.) for those with celiac disease.  In addition, those with celiac (and non-celiac gluten insensitivity) would probably have been counseled by a Registered Dietitian to avoid any malt, malt extract, or malt syrup, which are all made from barley (which contains gluten).

Now just for a little humor, Consumer Reports includes some interesting little facts. One is that last year almost twice the number of gluten-free pet foods were launched than breakfast cereals. Are we looking for something to spend money on? Just wondering.

Oh my goodness! Potato chip sales, which are naturally gluten-free, have skyrocketed 456 percent since 2012. Do you think that the American public really needs more potato chips in their diet? Hello obesity epidemic. Goodbye to the idea that going gluten-free will help the average person lose weight.

And lastly, they quote a food-marketing expert who says that the gluten-free market is a gold mine and the gluten-free label can lead to increased sales and premium pricing. Here is what he said – a revelation of the main driver for the gluten-free craze: “Perception is reality, and if consumers believe gluten-free products are better, then logic no longer matters.” Logic and evidence do matter, to our weight, our health, and our pocketbooks. I’m a firm believer that while many of us Americans are quick to jump on some food fads, we are not as stupid as the marketers believe.  Let us all be more informed consumers.