Makers of gluten-free food are well aware of two main consumer groups that buy their products: (1) Those who have to for medical reasons, and (2) those who want to because they think they're making a healthy choice by doing so.
While there is limited sales-growth potential for the Group 1, the economic upside for Group 2 is limitless. That's largely because if consumers' misconceptions are not corrected, more and more of them without gluten sensitivities will continue to believe that avoiding gluten is somehow better, and smarter and healthier.
That misguided reasoning, however, ignores scientific evidence as well as common sense, while it, ironically, promotes consumption of less healthy, reconfigured and processed foods.
"The things that make things tasty are salt, sugar, fat, and gluten. Take one thing out and they usually add more of the other."
That basic, important concept, reported by Bloomberg.com, is brought to you by Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. Along with Rory Jones, Green is the co-author of the straight-shooting, miracle-free book, Gluten Exposed: The Science Behind the Hype and How to Navigate to a Healthy, Symptom-Free Life. And aside from driving poor food choices, the authors also warn of potentially dangerous health risks -- including eating disorders -- that can develop by unnecessarily going gluten-free.
"As Gluten Exposed explains, disordered eating isn’t the only potential drawback," writes Dr. Alan Levinovitz, an author on the subject and assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, in his review of Green's book for Slate. "Any highly restrictive diet may reduce microbial diversity in the gastrointestinal tract, which in turn has been linked to digestive problems. Another risk is the temporary placebo improvement that often results from self-treating with a gluten-free diet—this can mask serious conditions that need urgent treatment."
Products marked gluten-free have been flying off supermarket shelves for years now. And while the explosive growth by percentage has slowed recently, sales of these products -- totaling more than $1.5 billion in 2015 -- significantly outpace those in other grocery categories. "According to Packaged Facts' October 2016 report, Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S.," Bloomberg reported, "29 percent said they buy them because 'gluten-free products are generally healthier,' and 20 percent said they make the purchase to manage their weight. Other surveys confirm these findings."
Just 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, and needs to buy these products. Meanwhile, "15 percent of consumers make these purchases because a member of the household has a gluten sensitivity, and only 9 percent make them for a member with celiac disease," states the October report. But nearly half of all food shoppers choose to purchase gluten-free products for reasons that are unsupported by science. And these goods don't promote weight loss or make consumers without gluten sensitivities, healthier.
"It's not a lifestyle," states Alessio Fasano, who as director runs the Celiac Research and Treatment Center at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital. "The gluten-free diet is for medical necessity."
That's a message that needs to be repeated to buyers of groceries everywhere, since going gluten-free is just the latest entrant in the ingredient-to-avoid-at-all-cost craze, joining the never-ending conga line that includes fat, sugar, salt, carbs and red meat. And as informed folks know, all of these are fine to eat, as long as you don't over do it.
Strangely, there is one benefit to consumers who don't have celiac disease, but buy gluten-free food anyway.
"Two and one half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications," according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, based in Woodland Hills, CA. Which means that some consumers are treating their condition -- the one they don't know they have -- purely by accident.
Unfortunately, there's a reason why trends like gluten-free take hold and create an obsession among those who don't fully understand what they're about: It's because it's easy to single out one food component -- and then demonize it -- in search of "better health." But it's just not that simple.
"It is tempting to want a miracle, a promise of certainty in a world of uncertain complexity. But those promises are junk science: Don’t be taken in," adds Dr. Levinovitz. "Seek out rigor and nuance instead of simple truths, and look for authors who are willing to admit that the truth has yet to be discovered."
And with that, thanks to Messrs. Green and Jones.