Making Sense of the Gluten-Free Food Frenzy

As Americans hunger for ways to eat right, this trend is raising more questions than answers.

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[See Omegas, Fiber, Gluten-Free, Probiotic: Some Health Claims Sell Big.]

So should we all go gluten-free?

Well, for one, most people don't have any trouble with gluten. And there's the risk that in eliminating gluten, we will eliminate important nutrients that may not be replenished by other foods.

"We want people to get fiber. We want them to get whole grains, so it is a contradictory message," says Joanne Slavin, a professor with the University of Minnesota's Food Science and Nutrition department, who calls gluten the "villain of the month." The substitute for gluten could provide the average consumer with far inferior nutrients, she argues. "A lot of those [gluten-free] products are absolutely full of fat, full of calories, full of sugar," Slavin says. "A lot of low-gluten products are not low in calories."

At the same time, a lot of high-gluten products, such as processed foods, are high in calories. Forsaking those products—which are popular staples of the American diet—for a more diversified diet, with fruits and vegetables, may explain the advantages many have reported by eliminating gluten, says Dee Sandquist, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If someone chooses to go gluten-free, Sandquist recommends a varied diet based on the federal government's "My Plate" guidelines, in which a plate is quartered among fruit, vegetables, protein and grain, and a cup representing dairy.

Meanwhile, the gluten-free market continues to balloon as industries tap into a population eager to check out the potential benefits of life free of gluten.

According to the market research group Packaged Facts, the sales of gluten-free foods and beverages reached $2.64 billion in 2010, a 30 percent increase since 2006, and are projected to approach $5.5 billion by 2015. At Whole Foods, for example, "the number of products within our gluten-free category has increased dramatically over the past decade and has really come into its own," says Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods' global executive grocery coordinator. "Thirty percent of our baking items are now gluten-free. It's no longer just breads and basic staples, though—the range of offerings is much larger. The flavor profile has also improved dramatically. There was a time when those products were not very appealing, but that's really changed."

[See A Gluten-Free Diet Doesn't Have to Be Boring.]

That's good news for the many people exploring these diets, as researchers continue to investigate the effects of gluten on the population and its purported linkage to various ailments. But before jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, health professionals urge those who think they may react adversely to gluten to first get tested for celiac disease, which is widely misdiagnosed.

Until then, Fasano advises that Americans eat foods our bodies have evolved to digest by buying locally-grown, seasonal foods. In other words, stick to those common-sense guidelines of eating natural, unprocessed foods and heaps of fruits and vegetables—a program that, incidentally, looks fairly close to a gluten-free diet.

Corrected on 6/1/2012: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people considered gluten sensitive in translating the percentage of Americans affected. The estimated 6 percent of the country that are considered gluten sensitive, translates to 16 to 18 million people, not 60 to 80 million people.