Many people today are looking for a healthier lifestyle, and that includes eating products that are being touted, rightly or wrongly, as healthy: for instance, acai berries, Pom Wonderful and gluten-free foods.
The phrase "gluten-free" is showing up everywhere from breakfast cereals, breads and pastas to cake mixes and crackers. Some supermarkets now have whole sections dedicated to gluten-free items.
Gluten is the major protein found in most grains. It is present in all forms of wheat (bulgur, durum, semolina, spelt, farro and more), barley, rye and triticale (a wheat-rye cross). Only amaranth millet and quinoa are gluten-free grains.
But gluten can also turn up in unexpected places, like certain brands of chocolate, imitation crab (surimi), deli meats, soy sauce, ketchup, vitamins, medicines, lip balms and even some kinds of toothpaste. It is also the basis for imitation meats.
People who have celiac disease must avoid anything containing gluten. For them, it causes intestinal inflammation, which prevents the absorption of vitamins and minerals and causes many other serious health problems like weight loss, bloating and diarrhea. Eventually, the brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs can be deprived of vital nourishment.
Thankfully, only about 1% of people are afflicted with this ailment. Celiac disease can be diagnosed with certainty through a blood test and a biopsy. However, as much as 10% of the population have a condition called gluten sensitivity, which is a gray area that lacks any defining medical tests. Some people say they just feel better when they eliminate gluten from their diet.
"Yet paradoxically, most of the people who reach for gluten-free products don't have celiac disease or even a sensitivity to wheat", says Peter H.R. Green, a doctor and director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. "The market for gluten-free products is exploding. Why exactly we don't know. Many people may just perceive that a gluten-free diet is healthier."
He goes on to say, "Eating a healthy gluten-free diet means paying constant attention to what you eat. This isn't something that anyone should do casually."
The truth is that unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals and fiber. A 2005 report form the American Dietetic Association warned that gluten-free products tend to be low in a wide range of nutrients, including calcium, B vitamins, iron, zinc and magnesium.
Many people are also avoiding gluten because they believe it will help them lose weight, but they gain weight instead because they end up consuming gluten-free packaged products that are often just as high in saturated fat, sugar and sodium as other junk food. These products often contain high-glycemic refined ingredients like white rice flour or fillers like potato starch that can affect blood sugar and trigger cravings. This does not apply to foods that are naturally gluten free, like meats and vegetables.
Gluten itself doesn't offer special nutritional benefits, but the many whole grains that contain gluten do. They're rich in an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fiber. Studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of all carbohydrates in the diet come from whole grain products.
So is the gluten-free phenomenon just a fad, or is there some basis for it? Dr. Alessio Fasano, founder of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment, comparing blood samples from the 1950s to the 1990s, found that young people today are nearly five times as likely to have celiac disease. He now estimates that 18 million Americans have some degree of gluten sensitivity.
Much more work needs to be done on this topic to separate fact from fad. Consult a physician before you seriously embark on a gluten-free diet.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.